Camel wrestling is a long-standing tradition in the Aegean region of Turkey, although it can be found in some other parts of the country. The Selcuk Camel Wrestling Festival is held on the 3rd Sunday of January each year in an ancient stadium in Selcuk, and generally features between 100 – 120 camels.
The exact origins of camel wrestling are hard to trace, although some suggest it began in Aydin, a large city approximately 50 minutes from Selcuk. It is believed the tradition was started by nomads who made their camels wrestle against the camels of other nomads as part of the general competition that existed between caravan owners. These days the events are held under the careful supervision of the local municipality, and are generally held as a fund-raiser.
In a camel wrestling contest, two male camels wrestle for a female camel in heat being lead before them. The winner is the camel who either makes the other camel fall, scream or beat a retreat. Although it looks and sounds dangerous, the competition is run with regard to the safety of the camels – an owner of a camel has the option to throw a rope into the arena, declaring a forefeit if he is worried about the safety of his camel.
Camel wrestling is performed by Tulu camels – a breed specially bred for the competitions – estimates have the number of tulu camels around Turkey sitting at around 1200. Because camels wrestle in weight classes, they need to have a bag of tricks available in order to win – some are trained to wrestle from the right or the left, while others are taught other tricks such as how to trip with their feet, or how to push their rival away.
The camels wrestle in highly decorative cloths placed behind their saddle, and the prior to a match they are paraded through the town, accompanied by a band.
Sadly, the costs of raising and competing a camel are on the rise, and so the sport is is decline.
A camel wrestling event involves considerable pomp and ceremony. The camels are decorated, and participate in a march through town followed by musicians playing the drums, and the traditional instrument, the zurna on the day before the event. The actual wrestling can be somewhat underwhelming to someone not familiar with the intricacies, although onlookers must often flee from an oncoming camel that is retreating in defeat from his opponent.
If you are lucky enough to attend a contest, you’ll easily spot the owners who generally get into the spirit of things and dress in traditional outfits which generally include bright scarves, special pants and highly decorative boots. The announcer of the competition is often a very colourful character, and in addition to commentating on the matches, he will read out poems of tribute to the camels.
Although it is not everyone’s cup of tea, if you are in the Selcuk in area in January, it’s worth trying to time your visit to coincide with the annual camel wrestling festival, as the days of the festivals are in decline.