I Went To A Camel Wrestling Festival. Yes, Really.

Posted on Feb 24, 2014 in Culture, Turkey, Turkey (excluding Istanbul) | 24 Comments

Glorious Camel (camel wrestling festival)

I stood in the middle of the sunny pitch, surrounded by dancing old men quaffing raki. Frothing camels were decked out in red and pink and gold finery. I was eating sausages made out of camel. The animals glared at me, I imagined, accusingly.

Sometimes life is so delightfully weird.

Yummy Camel Sausages (camel wrestling festival)

On a sunny Sunday in January, I found myself smack in the middle of one of the more bizarre traditions I’ve encountered here in Turkey: the annual Camel Wrestling Festival in Selcuk.

Yeah. CAMEL WRESTLING.

Mashallah Camel (camel wrestling festival)

Camels aren’t really native to Turkey. It’s one of the many jokes here around the world’s misperceptions about this country– Turkey is majority Muslim but it is not desert Arabia; most of the camels in Anatolia are there for tourists.

Except in the mid-Aegean region, apparently, where generations have bred camels to wrestle.

Camels (camel wrestling festival)

I knew very little about the event before I actually went. Friends who had been before invited me along; it sounded so absurd that I was immediately hooked. Before I went, I wasn’t even totally sure whether the camels themselves wrestle, or if it was like some kind of jousting thing. (It isn’t.)

A giant group of us arrived in Selcuk on Saturday evening, the night before the wrestling. We ventured into town for dinner and were met with a raucous scene– drunk old men dancing wildly to the cacophony of clarinets played by street musicians. We tucked ourselves into a table in the center of the festivities and proceeded to stuff ourselves with meze (Turkish tapas) and beer and fresh-plucked pomegranates and clementines while the madness swirled around us. We befriended some old men and fended off the musicians blowing their horns in our faces. It was one of loudest and most enjoyable dinners I’ve ever had.

The Night Before Camel Wrestling Festival

But it was only the appetizer, the preface. The next day we woke up bright and early and stumbled bleary-eyed under citrus trees on our way to the field for camel wrestling.

Men Watch The Field (camel wrestling festival)

We paid our 15 tl for admission, plus an extra 10 tl for plastic chairs, and claimed an empty bit of the hill. This would be our space for the next seven hours, as the day unfurled.

Two Men Posing (camel wrestling festival)

It was early enough that the morning gray of the sky hadn’t burned off yet, and the air was smoky as the many personal-sized grills in the crowd charred their inaugural meat for the day. The drinking started immediately. Photographers and curious onlookers wandered around the empty pitch and a giant banner of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, billowed from the top of the highest hill.

Ataturk and Camel Crowd (camel wrestling festival)I went off to explore. Stands sold toys or candy apples or fresh vegetables or bright orange scarves.

Orange Camel Wrestling Scarves (camel wrestling festival)

Drum Selling Lady (camel wrestling festival)

I found the pre-match camels, posing serenely while some of the owners wiped away the camel spit and others danced for the crowd.

Dancing Efe (camel wrestling festival)

These are the efes, the “great men” of Turkey’s Aegean coast. They are easily identified by their jaunty caps, dark vests, and amazing accordion boots. You can read more about the culture of efes here.

The sun burst through as the wrestling commenced. I was actually expecting it to be more disturbing, more violent; it turns out that camel wrestling isn’t really all that different from human wrestling. The camels push against each other, entangle their necks, and try to pin each other down. This is mating season and the wrestling camels are male; a female camel is led around the edge of the pitch to enflame the camel passions. It’s a long lazy day of wrestling, punctuated occasionally by camels who decide they don’t want to fight and flee the pitch, chased frantically by their owners as they gallop into the crowds.

Crowded Camel Pitch (camel wrestling festival)

After the initial thrill, most of the entertainment comes from the crowd itself. It’s overwhelmingly male and exceptionally friendly. The booze flows freely and grilled meats, yogurt mezes, and fresh oranges are shared with gusto.

Friendly at Camel Wrestling Festival

Groups of musicians weave through the crowd, playing lively traditional songs directly into your face until you tuck a five-lira note into their horns. We danced and ate and drank for hours.

Musicians at Camel Wrestling Festival

And then there were the camel sausages.

So Many Camel Sausages (camel wrestling festival)

Rows of stands sell grilled camel sausage sandwiches, which initially is uncomfortable when the living camels are giving you the stink-eye. The sausages themselves, though, are delicious and flavorful. I heard that there were also grilled camel liver sandwiches, but I did not eat that (and didn’t really care to).

Two Friendly Men (camel wrestling festival)

A fellow Bostonian in our group compared the experience to a baseball game, and while I believe only a guy from Boston would think to conflate the American pastime with camel wrestling, there is truth to that. The day rolls along at a leisurely pace, with the experience of just BEING THERE as exciting as anything happening on the field. After a while, we stopped paying attention to the actual wrestling, content instead to let the bright Aegean sun warm our faces as we laughed and chatted and ate and danced.

Dancing Turkish Man (camel wrestling festival)

Musicians in Sunshine (camel wrestling festival)

The sun started to slant into gold and the crowd reached a collective pinnacle of drunkenness and delight and exhaustion. As the final camels paraded around the pitch, we weaved our way down the hill, through the grills and men and orange peels. We had laughed and danced and drank away all our energy. And we all agreed– this had been one of the weirdest, most wonderful weekends ever.

Golden Camel Sunsets (camel wrestling festival)

24 Comments

  1. Quyen
    February 24, 2014

    What an incredible festival! I love seeing the different, unique festivals all around the world.
    http://liveitinerantly.com/

    Reply
  2. Christopher Sofsky
    February 24, 2014

    Great shots, great article

    Reply
  3. JourneyCount (@journeycount)
    February 25, 2014

    This is incredible! What an interesting festival, and your photos are absolutely beautiful :)

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      February 27, 2014

      Thank you! It was a wild experience.

      Reply
  4. Lau
    February 25, 2014

    how interesting! I wish I could see something like this over here!!

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      February 27, 2014

      I have no idea if they do this anywhere else in the world. It seems like they SHOULD, maybe in a place where you are more likely to find camels… but perhaps a lot of those places would have much less day-drinking!

      Reply
      • Lau
        March 2, 2014

        Haha, yes… I guess so! Here we have camel races, camel beauty contests, and camel chocolate milk… but no wrestling so far!! (they do bull sumo though…)

        Reply
  5. Naomi
    February 25, 2014

    CAMEL JOUSTING. I almost wish that HAD been what you saw.

    ;)

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      February 27, 2014

      I sort of wished that too. Maybe it’s time for a new tradition…!

      Reply
  6. Katie Hale
    February 25, 2014

    Oh wow! I’m not normally a fan of the kinds of sports that make animals fight for human entertainment, but if the males would be fighting anyway to get at the females, maybe it’s just taking advantage of a natural occurrence? Not sure – but either way, it sounds like a spectacular event. And definitely how I feel about most sport as well: the crowd atmosphere is way more important than what’s happening on the field; that’s what makes the day special.

    http://www.secondhandhedgehog.com

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      February 27, 2014

      I was definitely a bit wary of that– I was afraid it would be much more violent, like cock fighting or dog fighting. But the wrestling was super tame; the camels really just push against each other. The crowd was certainly more exciting :-)

      Reply
  7. pollyheath
    February 25, 2014

    These photos are incredible, but how could they not be. CAMEL WRESTLING?! I’m so happy I live in a world where this is a thing.

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      February 27, 2014

      Me too. Thank goodness for these little wonderful weird things in the world! (and thank you :-) )

      Reply
  8. Natalia
    February 27, 2014

    It is wonderful that you got to see this event. It is a great insight into culture of the Aegean coast and happy to read you had a good time.

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      February 27, 2014

      Thanks Natalia! It was fascinating.

      Reply
  9. Alyson
    March 13, 2014

    I always wanted to do the camel wrestling when we were living there, but we didn’t make it! Your pictures and fantastic and make me feel like I’m back in Turkey.

    For another odd Turkish tradition, you should also try out the Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne in June/July period. Such a bizarre event, and who would have know that oil wrestling was Turkey’s national sport?! :)

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      March 13, 2014

      I’ve heard of the oil wrestling! I’m not sure if I’ll be in Turkey then, but if I am I will definitely go up to check it out– it sounds crazy. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Reply
  10. Catherine
    January 13, 2015

    We’re heading to the camel wrestling next weekend and wondered if you could help me with a couple of questions? Is it a ticketed event? Do you need tickets in advance/where do you get them/how much do they cost? Cannot find any information about tickets at all!

    PS. Thank you so much for all the info about Turkey, Georgia and Armenia – have read pretty much everything you’ve written on these three destinations in the last few days and found out a of useful information!

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      January 13, 2015

      I am also heading to camel wrestling next weekend! Perhaps we’ll see each other.
      It is ticketed, but you just buy your ticket at the entrance– if I remember correctly, it was 15tl. You can also rent a plastic stool to sit on for 10tl. (Definitely worth it).

      And you are SO welcome! I’m glad you found it useful. Please let me know if you have any other questions (about camels, Georgia, Turkey, whatever) and see you at camel wrestling :-)

      Reply
      • Catherine
        January 13, 2015

        Thank you so much for the info! Am super excited for the came wrestling – it must be as good as it sounds if you’re going back two years in a row! Will keep an eye out for you there :)

        Reply
        • Katrinka
          January 13, 2015

          Please do! Come say hi if you spot me. I’ll be with a big group of expats, so I imagine we’ll stick out :-)

          Reply

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