Skip to Content

A Local’s Guide to Turkish Oil Wrestling Festivals – UNESCO Cultural Heritage

Oil wrestling is one of the national sports of Turkey.  The oil wrestling events are not just tournaments but also festivals with many traditional celebrations.

The biggest oil wrestling festival is in Edirne, Kırkpınar.  For this reason, The Kırkpınar Festival has been accepted into UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

This sport may be weird to foreigners and gay to some. Men reaching down to other men’s pants seem unexplainable to non-Turkish people.

Yet, the wrestlers are knights in the eyes of the Turkish people. Oil wrestling is a sport and a masculine event to prove fair fight, strength, and endurance.

As a Turkish local, I will explain everything related to Turkish Oil Wrestling so that you will understand this sport and our culture better.

There is no ring or border in Turkish wrestling arenas because it is believed that once you enter the arena of the brave, you should not escape from your opponent.

1. What is an Oil Wrestling Festival?

Wrestling Festivals are big fairs with music and dances. Lamb roast is the most popular food that you can find at these festivals.

The Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling is a three-day wrestling event. The other smaller festivals are usually one-day events.

Oil Wrestling is a Turkish version of chivalrous tournaments similar to European knight tournaments of Medieval times.

The place where the wrestling matches take place is called “Er Meydani” or, in other words, the arena of the brave.

Wrestlers are called Pehlivan, the same word is used in Turkish slang language to describe talented, brave men.

A game of oil wrestling in the gardens of the Topkapi Palace
Photo Source Wikipedia

2. Where can you see Turkish oil wrestling?

Around a hundred oil wrestling tournaments occur annually in 33 Turkish cities. In 2015, there were 120 recorded oil wrestling festivals in Turkey. 

Edirne, Antalya, Istanbul, Kocaeli, Balıkesir, Sakarya, and Samsun are Turkish cities that are known to hold numerous oil wrestling festivals each year. Source

Oil wrestling tournaments also take place in northern parts of Greece, where a sizable Turkish population lives. The biggest oil wrestling festival in Greece is in the village of Sohos in Thessaloniki.

The festivals of Camel Wrestling are similar to Turkish Oil Wrestling Festivals but with different themes and traditions. Click to read my Camel Wrestling Festivals guide to learn more.

In 2019, 2.380 wrestlers registered to compete in Kırkpınar. These matches attract thousands of spectators to Edirne. Kırkpınar Edirne. Source

3. When Turkish Oil Wrestling Festivals are organized?

Oil Wrestling Festivals are organized starting from April to October.

The most famous Edirne Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival takes place every year at the end of June and the beginning of July.

The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival, which started in 1361, is the oldest and most traditional oil wrestling festival

Only Balkan Wars and World War 1 stopped the wrestling tradition for a while. Yet, this tournament continues to be celebrated more than 600 years later.

Kirkpinar Wrestling Festival also holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running athletic competition.

2022 Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival Winners Source

4. What is the point of Turkish Oil Wrestling? 

An academic research revealed wrestlers join this competition mostly for three reasons

  • Wrestling makes them happy. (%98)
  • They are proud of being a wrestler (%96)
  • Upholding the tradition (%95)  Source

Kırkpınar is the Superbowl or the Championship of the oil wrestling sport.

Thousands of wrestlers from all over Turkey and Greece come here to gain the title of Champion of Kırkpınar.” Bas Pehlivan”.

Besides the honor of gaining a title, there are many prizes for wrestlers in oil wrestling festivals. 

In Kırkpınar, Baş Pehlivan receives a prize of 10.000 USD plus a golden medal. 

He is also given a belt with 1400 gr (50 ounces). This belt is to be returned next year. Yet, if the wrestler succeeds in being Bas Pehlivan for three years, he would be the permanent owner of that golden belt.

The prize of the Baspehlivan is given by the President of the Turkish Republic (“Aga of all Agas’ ‘ formerly it was the Sultans), the Mayor, and the Aga of Kirkpinar.

“Aga” title is explained further down below.

Looking for day trip ideas around Istanbul? Check out my guide for Unique Day Trip Ideas from Istanbul

Folkloric dances differ from region to region in Turkey. Efe(s) are dancing Zeybek. From Alasehir Oil Wrestling Festival.

4. Why do wrestlers put on oil?

Wrestlers put oil because it acts as a lubricant, making it harder to grab the opponent. For this reason, oil wrestling is a sport that requires great strength and skill.

A friend once asked me if wrestlers were using baby oil. No, they do not use baby oil. 

Wrestlers usually use olive oil to cover their bodies. Yet, in some instances, flower oil is also used to lower the cost of oil wrestling events. 

The biggest cost of these festivals is the oil expenses. 3000 to 4000 liters of olive oil are used in the Edirne Kırkpınar Festival every year.

Turkish art shows an oil wrestling match (“Pehlivan”) in the Sultan’s presence.

5. Turkish oil wrestlers’ traditional outfit: Kisbet

Turkish wrestlers wear a leather outfit called Kisbet. Kisbet is a leather tight shorts made traditionally without any sewing.

The kisbet is a heavy leather clothing item, and each one weighs around 13 kg.

Today only a handful of artisans have the knowledge to make these wrestling shorts. Traditionally made kisbets are very expensive.

In the old days, not all wrestlers were entitled to wear kisbet, and it was a privilege to wear an original kisbet.

Only wrestling masters would entitle someone to wear kisbet, and it was an event celebrated with a ceremony. Source

Manisa Yunusemre Oil Wrestling Festival

7. Why do Turkish oil wrestlers reach down their pants?

According to Olympic wrestling rules, grabbing your opponent’s clothing is a foul. 

Yet, in Turkish oil wrestling, reaching down their pants (kisbet), and putting hands inside the kisbet is a perfectly normal way to win.

The Turkish oil wrestlers put their hands and arms inside their opponent’s pants to control their opponent. This is a path to victory.

I know some of you are wondering about the hand in the kisbet; just a side note, it is against the rules to grab anything inside the kisbet 🙂

Check out my guide about the origins of the Turkish Language to learn more about Turkish Culture and People.

8.  Rules of Turkish Oil Wrestling Matches – How do you win in Turkish oil wrestling?

The objective of oil wrestling is to overpower the opponent. For this reason, it is different from regular wrestling objectives.

There are many different winning conditions and rules reflecting many years of tradition. 

The five most common winning conditions in oil wrestling are:

  • Making the opponent lay his back on the ground. 
  • Wrestlers can also win by causing their standing opponents to fall on their backs or sideways. This is a knockout.
  • The other winning move is hugging your opponent off the ground and walking three steps with your opponent staying off the ground. This win is called a win by scaling (“tartarak yenmek”)
  • A wrestler can grab his opponent by the foot, lift him upside down and make him fall backward. This win position is called up the nail (“çivi yukarı”)
  • If a wrestler accepts the other wrestler’s superiority. (“Pes etmek”)

“Belly to the sky” chanting means wrestlers lose when their belly sees the sky.

9. The Old & New Rules of Oil Wrestling. Time Limit For Matches.

Until 1975, there was no time limit for Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling matches.

The oil wrestlers (“Pehlivan” in Turkish) wrestled for one or two days to determine the winner. The matches would start in the morning and continue for a full day until dusk. 

The Turkish oil wrestling rules changed after 1975.

Now, the wrestling matches are 40 minutes long. If nobody wins within 40 minutes, the match is extended for 7 additional minutes.

The additional period is scored, and whoever scores the most in this limited time is declared as the winner.

A final match is organized if the score is even after 7 additional minutes. In this final stage, whoever gets the first point ”golden point” is declared the winner.

Seyfettin Selim has been earning the Aga title since 2008.

10. Who is the Aga of Oil Wrestling Festivals?

Before every oil wrestling event, an auction takes place for the title of Aga. The highest bidder earns the title of Aga.

Aga is an honorary and prestigious title.

In the old days, if somebody gained the title of Aga, he would be the event’s main sponsor.

Aga was responsible for hosting everyone coming to the event. Aga’s responsibility included providing a place for everyone to sleep and providing food and shelter for the horses.

Now the tradition still continues, yet today the highest bidder pays money to the event board for the title of Aga.

In 2019 Seyfettin Selim paid 661 thousand Turkish Lira (120.000 USD in 2019) to win the title of Aga of Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival.

If you are wondering about Women in Turkish Culture, please read my guide “Turkish Women – How and Why They Are Different?”

Oil Wrestling Festival Alasehir Manisa

11. The Legend behind Edirne Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival

Ottoman (Turkish) Empire forces started expanding into the Edirne region around the 14th century.

According to legend, at one time, a military unit of 40 soldiers was on an expeditionary mission, and these soldiers had the habit of wrestling between themselves to improve their readiness.

Two of these brothers at arms, Ahi and Selim started wrestling and wrestled for hours, yet none of them was able to win. 

After hours of struggle, their comrades intervened and separated them. Yet, both of them died from exhaustion.

The wrestlers were buried under a tree, and the expeditionary force continued its mission.

When the soldiers returned from their mission, they found freshly formed springs under the tree where soldiers were buried.

After that incident, the place was named Kırkpınar (Forty Springs). Since then, every year, a wrestling tournament has been organized on this spot.

Details of the Ancient Egyptian wrestling position found at a tomb in Beni Hasan. Photo Source Wikipedia

12. The Brief History of Turkish Oil Wrestling

Wrestling was invented 15.000 thousand years ago by humans. Wrestling figures can be seen in the earliest cave drawings. 

The basic figures of wrestling have not changed since Babylonian and Egyptian times. Yet, every culture has its own variation of wrestling rules.

Turkish people have also wrestled since ancient times.

“Güreş” which means wrestling in Turkish, is an ancient word.

A similar word is used for wrestling in Turkic communities ranging from Middle Asia to the Balkans. This means Turks practiced wrestling widely before coming to Anatolia from Middle Asia.

For example, Uigur people living in East China use the same word, “küreş” for wrestling.

Check to my

A marble art showing a Greek wrestling match around 500 BC. Photo Source Wikipedia

Greeks used to oil themselves and cover their bodies with sand before wrestling matches in the early Olympic games. Turkish wrestlers also use olive oil in these wrestling matches.

It is believed that Turkish wrestling roots are distinctly different from Greek wrestling. Olive oil usage is a tradition that Turks adopted from Persian, Greek, and Byzantine roots. 

Yet, today, there are no other oil wrestling practices in the Middle East or the Balkans other than Turkish oil wrestling.

The other main difference between Greek and Turkish styles is the wrestling outfits. The Greeks wrestled nude in ancient times, yet there is no nude wrestling in Turkish tradition.

Suggested reading: Turkish vs Greek Languages.

Other posts that you may like