I Went To A Camel Wrestling Festival. Yes, Really.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I found the pre-match camels, posing serenely while some of the owners wiped away the camel spit and others danced for the crowd.
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.
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.
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.
And then there were the camel sausages.
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).
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.
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.