I remember being taught that song at primary school – it never made much sense but then not a lot does at that age as we soak stuff up like blotting paper (the link is for those under 25 years of age). And like blotting paper our memories may be blurred but the marks and the lyrics are permanent. Which is why I still hum the ditty whenever J and I go to camel wrestling!
the camels coming – or possibly going
So, together with a couple of camel wrestling virgin friends, we headed for the village of Sinirtepe near Aydın for their annual, much advertised, Camelus dromedarius festival. The place was suspiciously quiet when we arrived and with good reason – they’d had their tourney on the 3rd of January! Ho-hum!
different venue, right idea
J and I prefer local, non-touristic venues and the price we pay is that information is sometimes lacking. The locals in Sinirtepe were sympathetic and in very short order they sent us on our way to a match being staged about 50 kms away at Bağarası. It could not have been a better introduction to the spectacle for our friends, It had everything – staged on a football pitch set in the middle of the shambolic industrial area, the parking was chaotic, the sights, smells and sounds exotic and the people wonderfully welcoming and friendly. Just our sort of place!
I know some of you might feel concerned that what we were supporting is some form of blood sport. It is not! The events are a continuation of a tradition from the days when camel trains and caravans criss-crossed Turkey and much of the Middle East and Asia. Traders would encourage the bull camels to do what they do naturally during the four month breeding season. The events brought camel owners together where old and new friendships were cemented, information and breeding stock were exchanged and a lot of feasting, drinking and wagering took place. Camel owners are easy to spot due to their distinctive dress: cornered caps, traditional scarves around the neck, jackets, special trousers and accordion-like boots.
I love these boots
his job is to secure the camel’s jaw to prevent biting and injury
These days the camels are bred for strength and fed and trained to build them up. Like football and much else it is no longer a poor man’s sport. J made some enquiries and a young animal will set you back around six thousand lira. A mature 12 year-old bull with much of its wrestling and breeding career ahead would cost between eighty and one hundred and fifty thousand lira. Bulls begin wrestling at about seven years of age and continue for about ten years some up to the age of twenty. When you add in the cost of food, veterinary care, transport and pre-festival partying you are talking a pretty penny!
that said, there was one very vocal lady owner
bull camel in all his finery and glory
With these magnificent creatures being so valuable great care is taken to ensure that no harm comes to them apart from a bruised ego if they go out in the first round! If an animal is reluctant or afraid to engage then the referee calls a halt. A win is signalled when one animal succeeds in pinning, tripping or totally dominating his opponent and two teams rush in to drag the beasts apart. Some contests can be like watching paint dry whilst others, especially in the later rounds with the best bulls, can be very lively.
Of great value is a good cazgır. He is the person who announces wrestlers or the wrestling camels – calls out the camels’ names. The cazgır reads poems praising each camel, adding colour to the contest. The cazgır, just as in two-legged wrestling contests, is the most important and colourful person in the competition. He treats a camel wrestling match just like a sport commentator at a soccer match.
Perhaps the most entertaining sights are when one camel has had enough and makes a bid to escape pursued by the victor. With bulls weighing in at between seven hundred and fifty and fifteen hundred kilos there are a couple of tons of tunnel vision thundering about. When pursued and pursuer head for the hills behind the spectators with their tables, chairs and barbecues the chaos and antics are like something from a Buster Keaton film. Do people get hurt? Rarely.
Whilst the stars are, without question, the magnificent bulls decked out in all their splendour and slobbering at the scent of battle (or is it female pheromones?) they are not the only attraction. The sight of thousands of Turks eating, drinking, socialising and dancing whilst wandering folk bands compete with each other for the rolled up bank notes that get stuffed into their instruments is something to experience. Add in the smells from countless barbecues and vendors selling camel sausage sandwiches and köfte with the aroma of rutting camels and your experience is complete!
camel sausage in a bun
our virgins getting the musical works whilst J is masticating again!
muzzle and bridle
The name of the competing camel is written on a piece of embroidered cloth called a peş hung behind the saddle, which is called the “havut.” Beneath the camel’s name is written the word Maşallah (May God protect him). ‘Arza’ in heroic pose and spraying pheromones all over the place!
Is it worth going to camel wrestling? Absolutely! For the spectacle, the colour, the noise, the smells, tastes and the welcome for a visitor. The camels love to have their ears scratched!
Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü
ps Here’re the real Cam(pb)e(l)ls Coming Oho, Oho!