Yagli Gures

Yagli Gures is the Turkish national sport. It is commonly known as oil wrestling (sometimes as grease wrestling) because the wrestlers douse themselves with olive oil. It is related to Uzbek Kurash and to Tatar Koras. The wrestlers, known as pehlivan, meaning hero, wear a type of hand-stitched lederhosen called kisbet (sometimes kispet), which were traditionally made of water buffalo hide, but now also of calf leather.

Unlike Olympic wrestling, oil wrestling matches may be won by achieving an effective hold of the kisbet. Thus, the pehlivan aims to control his opponent by putting his arm through the latter’s kisbet.

To win by this move is called paça kazık. Originally, matches had no set duration and could go on for one or two days, until one man was able to establish superiority, but in 1975 the duration was capped at 40 minutes for the baspehlivan and 30 minutes for the pehlivan category. If no winner is determined, another 15 minutes—10 minutes for the pehlivan category—of wrestling ensues, wherein scores are kept to determine the victor.

The annual Kırkpınar tournament, held in Edirne in Turkish Thrace since 1362, is the oldest continuously running, sanctioned sporting competition in the world. In recent years this style of wrestling has also become popular in other countries, most notably the Netherlands and Japan.

Every year since 1640 Turkey’s best wrestlers – men and boys – have gathered for their national championships on a grassy field near the capitol of the old Ottoman Empire (Edirne). The tournament is called Kirkpinar, or “Forty Springs,” in honor of a 17th Century wrestling legend.

About 1,000 barefoot grapplers compete, oiled up and stripped to the waist. The anything-goes style and the oiled leather trunks originated with the world-renowned Janissaries, an elite fraternity of body guards to the imperial Sultans. The modern stadium is located on the former site of the Sultan’s palace, and Turkey’s president crowns the champions on the final day.

For three days the field is crowded with simultaneous matches in eleven divisions, ranging from school kids to forty-year-old masters. The sun is hot and the fights are long. Only if there is no winner after a half-hour is the mach decided with a sudden death overtime. There are few forbidden holds, and grabbing of trunks is not off limits.

Despite the fierce aggressiveness, however, and the obvious opportunities for fouling, these Turks behave like blood brothers despite their hunger for victory. If one is injured, or gets grass in his eye, for example, it is his opponent who comes to his aid.

History: The earliest depictions of wrestling are found in the Beni Hasan Temple in Egypt. The sport of oil wrestling dates back to 2650 BC in Egypt and Assyria. The foremost olympic sport in ancient Greece was wrestling. As depicted on numerous illustrations, the wrestlers used to compete completely naked. Olympic athletes greased themselves with olive oil, probably to protect their skin from the Agean sun.

Turks on the other hand knew neither the olympic wrestling (which is Greco-Roman meaning legs are not involved) nor olive oil because they were nomadic land people from central Asia. However Turks wrestled free style and considered it a national sport. Turkish wrestlers had started covering themselves according to the Islamic law (between the navel and the knees) after the 10th century. When the ancient Turkish freestyle wrestling met the ancient Greco-Roman olympic oil wrestling, a new wrestling style was born: Traditional Turkish Oil Wrestling.

Freestyle and the leather clothing came from traditional Turkish wrestling called “karakucak” (literally means black lap), olive oil came from the ancient olympic wrestling and most of the wrestling terms from Farsi. In the Ottoman Empire, wrestlers learned the art in special schools called tekke, which were not merely athletic centres, but also spiritual centres, similar to those attended by the Japanese Sumo wrestlers, where it was taught that man is not just matter, but also spirit.

These centers bear a striking resemblance to the Zurkhanes of Iran. This could explain the abundance of Farsi terms in oil wrestling. Since competition without the harmony of matter and spirit would be detrimental to the development of good character, wrestlers oil one another prior to matches as a demonstration of balance and mutual respect. Equally, if a younger man should defeat an older man, he kisses the latter’s hand (A sign of respect for elders in Turkey, similar to a Japanese bow).

Matches are held all over Turkey throughout the year, but in early summer the wrestlers gather in Kırkpınar for the annual three-day wrestling tournament to determine who will be the baspehlivan (chief hero) of Turkey. Every year, around 1000 wrestlers attend the tournament.

Ottoman chroniclers and writers attest that the Kırkpınar Games have been held every year since 1362, making them the world’s oldest continually sanctioned sporting competition. Only about 70 times were the Games cancelled. The matches have been held there since 1924, where they were moved after the Balkan War. The original site had been some 35 kilometres distant.

Kırkpınar, on the outskirts of Edirne (the second capital of the Ottoman Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453), was once the site of the summer hunting palace of the Ottoman Sultan.

There are some organized competitions outside Turkey, prominent among which is the Royal Dutch Power Sport Federation (KNKF Koninklijke Nederlandse Krachtsport en Fitnessfederatie) in the Netherlands.

Famous Wrestlers (Pehlivans):

  • 1861-1886 Gaddar Kel Aliço “Ruthless Bald Alico” (born 1845 – died 1922), champion for 26 years, left the sport after a defeat by Koca Yusuf and became the coach of Adali Halil.
  • 1887 Koca Yusuf of Sumnu / Aliço apprentice (b. 1857 Sumnu, near Deliorman Bulgaria – d. 4th of June 1898) defeated in 1885 Kel Alico at the Edirne Kırkpınar and got the Gold Belt. Champion for 18 years. He defeated all the wrestling champions in Europe and went to America to defeat Robert the Champion of America, becoming the Universal Champion of wrestling on the 21st of May 1898. Finally, in Chicago, Yusuf quickly defeated the famous Ed Lewis.
  • 1888 Adalı Halil Pehlivan / Aliço apprentice (b. 1871 Kilise Köy,Greece – d.1926 Edirne) was buried on the special erected Pehlivan Cemetery. At the beginning of the Edirne Kırkpınar all wrestlers and officials go to his grave for a ceremonial prayer.
  • Yusuf Pehlivan of Geçkin
  • 1914 Hergeleci Ä°brahim (b. 1848 in Islopol Razgrad – d. 1915), nicknamed Hergeleci as he was a trainer of wild horses, defeated Adali Halil at the Edirne Kırkpınar and became the coach of Koca Yusuf. In Paris, France, he wrestled with Yusuf. The match was interrupted and never completed.
  • Kara Murat of Çömlek Village
  • Molla Ä°zzet of Silivri
  • NakkaÅŸ Eyüp of Çatalca (b. Kestanelik Village near Catalca) was nicknamed Nakkas (miniaturist) because he was very careful while wrestling, so it was commonly said his style is that of a miniaturist.
  • Yenici Mehmet
  • Mahmut of Kızılcık (b. 1878 Kizilcik near Dobruca, Romania – d. 1931 EskiÅŸehir, Turkey)

After oilwrestling-fame of being Champion at the Edirne Kırkpınar he went to Paris where he stood undefeated after 27 wrestling matches. His fame spread around the World and Kizilcikli Mahmut won all the wrestling matches he fought in the USA in the years 1908, 1909, 1919 and 1922. His legendary strength is still remembered in Romania.

  • Mehmet of Kurtdere (b. 1864 in Deliorman, Bulgaria)- d.1939 Balıkesir, Turkey) wrestled with all famous wrestlers of his time and was very famous. He traveled to France, Great Britain, The Netherlands and the USA but was never defeated.
  • Çolak Mümin Molla ( b.1873 Kavala, Greece – d.1915) became famous after he defeated Adali Halil. There are conflicting stories about this hero of the Edirne Kırkpınar. Mumin was called Colak for having one arm missing (or paralyzed).
  • Suyolcu Mehmet
  • Benli Badullah First Champion of the Turkish Republic Era, in 1924