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The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival

Dating back to the year 1357, the Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival is the oldest wrestling event in the world, attracting oiled up wrestlers from all over Turkey, and beyond.

Oil wrestling is one of Turkey’s most popular sports, and regarded by many as the manliest sport on Earth, so it’s no wonder over 1,500 oiled up Turks gather, every year, on a green field near Edirne, for a seven day event that decides the best oil wrestler in the land.

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When they weren’t marching for Rumelia, at the middle of the 14th century, the Ottomans of Anatolia liked to keep themselves in shape by wrestling each other and proving their strength  and skill. According to an old Turkish legend, the Kirkpinar Oil Festival began during an Ottoman campaign against Thrace. Sultan Suleyman Pasha and 40 of his warriors were raiding forts along what is now the Turkish-Greek-Bulgarian border. One day two of his warriors started wrestling each other, and the sultan promised the winner a “kispet” (pair of leather pants).  They fought morning to midnight, without a winner emerging, and both wrestlers eventually died from exhaustion. They were buried under a fig tree that soon sprouted fresh water springs, and the field on which the wrestled was named Kirkpinar (Forty Springs).

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The Kirkpinar Oil Festival is a big event that features music and celebrations, belly dancing, dozens of roasted lams, but oil wrestling remains the highlight of the show. Turks, as well as gypsies from all over Asia and Eastern Europe gather on the outskirts of Edirne and compete in a series of greasy wrestling matches. Until 1975, oil wrestling had no time limit, and often fighters would wrestle from dawn until dusk, and continue their match the next day. But after 1975 a 40 minute time limit was ensued, with a 7 minute overtime, if a winner isn’t decided. The contestant who scores the most points during the extra time is pronounced the winner.

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Oil wrestlers are only dressed in a pair of leather pants, weighing around 13 kilograms, and a coating of olive oil. Many wonder what the purpose of the olive oil is, in a sport like wrestling, but the wrestlers have been using it since the beginning of the sport, when olive oil was one of the few things keeping Malaria-carrying mosquitoes away. Now it’s just a way of keeping tradition alive and honoring the warriors of old.

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The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival is a lot more than culture and history, it’s a regular business. Winners of the festival receive a financial prize equivalent to $100,000, as well as gold and a 1.5 kilogram gold champions belt. Businessmen and company’s looking to be represented by a wrestler also offer fighters substantial rewards. There are various categories of wrestlers, at Kirkpinar, from young boys to 40-year-old masters, and the winners of each are crowned by the president of Turkey himself.

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The 649th edition of Kirkpinar is ongoing at Edirne, between 21-27 of June.

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