Turkish Oil Wrestlers, Yağlı Pehlivan Güreşleri
- Oil wrestling, called so because wrestlers douse themselves with olive oil, is the national sport of Turkey. Oil wrestling traces it’s origins to ancient Babylon, making it older than the more recognizable wrestling form introduced by Greeks and Romans. Though cognate forms of this style of folk wrestling can be found throughout Western Eurasia, it is uniquely Turkish in its modern identity due to its popularity, stylized wrestling traditions, and cultural identity. Before matches begin the pehlivans (“wrestlers” or “heroes”) oil their bodies with a mixture of olive oil and water for the dual purpose of making it harder for a wrestler to grip one’s opponent and for the endurance of the afternoon summer heat. Oil wrestling is more about strength and endurance than clever moves. Each wrestler wears a kispet, sturdy leather trunks from the waist to below the knees. These trousers worn by wrestlers are an important symbol of creativity in the field of handicrafts, made from the hides of healthy animals, and are hand-embroidered often with the back containing hand-studded writing that can indicate name, location, sponsorship, or even political stance. He also wraps coarse cloths around his knees in order to block the opening of the cuffs against his opponent’s probing fingers. There are a variety of pins that decide who the winner will be, from submission, to lifting his opponent entirely off the ground and carrying him several feet.
- Matches are held all over Turkey throughout the year, but in early summer, around 1000 competitors gather in Kırkpınar, an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site, for an annual three-day wrestling tournament to determine who will be the baspehlivan (chief wrestler) of Turkey. I traveled to Turkey to make a series about the tournament and its youth, and it is where I struck up a conversation with Haktan Elkilic, a young turkish oil wrestler whom I met when I was photographing Kırkpınar. We shared with each other how we imagined our respective countries viewpoints on the relationship between oil wrestling culture and masculinity to be. As we conversed about the difference between the two countries I realized how important it was for me to understand how oil wrestlers view turkish masculinity through it’s sports culture: how does its ritual and tradition inform how adolescents view masculinity? Does oil wrestling conform or break from normative turkish masculinity? What are adolescent wrestlers relationship with masculinity?
Wrestling is a thing of local folklore and international organization. Great homes, institutions, and collections raise the platform of these icons for a multitude of reasons. Styles are free and amateur, bodies brawl on beaches and mattes with oils on flesh. Little eccentricities and personalities individualize the regalia and are unmistakable to wrestling itself. The form of a wrestling is exciting, but all contact between individuals kindle desires and impressions of the world around them. Turkish Oil Wrestling is one such example, and its youth help to define the significance of the sport.