January 15, 2009

Turkish Camel Wrestling
Bursa, Turkey

I received a reply from one of my CouchSurfing hosting inquiries today that made me do a bit of a double-take:

Hello from Selçuk,

When you be here just let me when you be here than I tell you my couch is avanble or not here has now camel wrestling festival than busy time I have couch for 2 people but 4 people make rezerve already I like to meet with you for share our life experince my engilish not very well but I things you can understand.

What? Did he say camel wrestling festival??

My curiosity was certainly piqued; I had to know more.

…And now that I do, I wish terribly that I could attend such an event.

The Gist on Camel Wrestling in Turkey

Excerpted from AllAboutTurkey.com, which even includes a 2008-2009 "Camel League" city schedule:

In reality it doesn't happen and camel wrestling is more akin to comedy than to blood-sport.

Bull camels normally wrestle and butt one another in a knock-out contest for precedence in a herd, and more importantly, precedence in mating. In the arena two bulls are led out and then a young cow is paraded around to get them excited. It's very easy to know when a bull is excited as streams of viscous milky saliva issue from his mouth and nostrils.

Mostly the two bulls will half-heartedly butt each other and lean on the other until one of them gives in and runs away. This is the really exciting bit as the bull will often charge off towards the crowd, with the conquering bull in pursuit, and the spectators must scramble hurriedly out of the way. The antics of spectators trying to avoid a thousand kilograms (nearly a ton) of camel running towards them can lead to pure comedy and is the best part of camel wrestling.

The sport is a declining one as the cost of keeping, feeding and training a camel solely for competition doesn't come cheaply, and only a rich man can afford to do it. Large bets are wagered by owners and spectators alike, though how you tell just which camel won can be difficult to determine. What happens when they both run away? — it happens.

Excerpted from a NY Times piece written nine years ago:

It's a legacy from ancient Turkic tribes and its steadily increasing popularity reflects the desire of many Turks to hold on to their Asian identity even as they turn toward Europe.

The sport developed as a diversion in winter, when cold weather made farming impossible and forced nomads down from their mountainside pastures.

Winter also happens to be the only time camels will fight, because it is mating season.

Their instinct is to knock each other down to win the right to available females.

Many of the thousands of fans who come to watch camel fights every Sunday during the three-month season are nomads who spend summers moving among grazing areas.

The owner of a fighting camel is invariably a celebrity in his village, and when his camel wins, he leads the whole village in celebration. Children admire him, men defer to him, and women compete for his attention.

He can explain the judging system, the various weight classes, the special techniques that winning camels must learn, and the importance of having an animal with bloodlines traceable to Iran. The subtleties of the sport, however, are not immediately visible to the untrained eye.

A fight begins with two camels, the largest of which can weigh well over a ton, being led toward each other. Sometimes one immediately bolts and runs away, thereby forfeiting the match.

More often, they crash into each other and begin a shoulder-to-shoulder pushing match that resembles an outsize version of sumo wrestling.

For a minute or more, there is little movement as the combatants strain against each other.

An announcer breathlessly calls the play-by-play.

Finally, one of the animals is pushed to the ground and thereby defeated. Each winning owner is awarded a carpet.

Fans agree that in this sport, a champion is born and not made. Camels can be trained, but no amount of training can make up for a weak or overly peaceful character.

Serious injuries are rare, since camels can usually harm each other only by biting, and during fights they are muzzled.

Fighting camels do no work for nine months of the year, and in the competitive season they fight only about a dozen times. Their owners pamper them and often become deeply attached to them.

The $150 or $200 that each camel owner receives for entering a competition does not come close to covering the costs of raising the animal and transporting it from town to town.

"In the old days this was a sport for everyone, but now you have to be rich," he said.

"As for the carpets, they're all machine made and not so good. I have piles of them at home. I give them away. But this isn't about money or carpets. It's about keeping something alive that was given to us by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers."

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