The arena was filled with noisy spectators who, in tiered seats, surrounded the wrestling pit below. Camels were walked in and out of the ring, adorned with their best badges, their elaborate saddles indicating their names, origins and their trainers or owners.
Held in mid-January on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the annual camel wrestling festival near the town of Selcuk almost dominates the senses. When I attended the event in 2017, sausages sizzled on the stalls surrounding the arena; old men chain-smoked cigarettes while sipping beer or raki, a traditional Turkish drink made from anise. There was the faint racket of chatter, the occasional collective gasping, and, of course, the smell of damp camel hair and feces. (The festival was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Camels wrestle naturally in the wild and organized matches are not allowed to get too loud. A camel wins by causing its opponent to scream, fall or beat, and trainers stay on hand to make sure neither side is injured. The winners are rewarded with a mass-produced Turkish carpet, and although betting is illegal, low-level betting often takes place between fans, in the form of a few drinks or a few Turkish liras.
Well adapted to desert conditions, camels were used in medieval times as beasts of burden along the Silk Road. They are still used by nomadic tribes throughout much of Central and South Asia – in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes they are still used in Turkey.
With a heritage rooted in ancient Turkish tribes, the community of Turkish camel owners, trainers and camel enthusiasts is still vibrant and competitive. But the festival has become a kind of niche expression in modern Turkey. These days it seems as much about socializing, chatting and drinking as it is about camels fighting in the sand.
As a former camel owner myself (more on this later), I have been especially looking forward to attending the festival since arriving in Turkey almost ten years ago. Trendy young friends from Istanbul moaned that the practice was an obscure and cutesy event, akin to Turkish oil wrestling, something only tourists know or care about. To my surprise, however, the spectators were almost all Turks.
Camel drivers are a lively group and care deeply about their animals. Several trainers, like Yilmaz Bicak, spent the night with the camels in a barn on the outskirts of town, to ensure their well-being and deter thieves.
The animals used in wrestling events are known as Tulu camels – a breed that results from mating a Bactrian camel (two-humped) with a dromedary (one-humped) – and are bred specifically for the competitions.
The camels fight once a day and each match lasts about 15 minutes – again, to protect the welfare of the animals. Before entering the ring, male camels are brought up close to a female camel, but the animals are not allowed to touch each other, resulting in sexual tension that trainers say gives the males extra strength.
Camel wrestling has fallen out of favor over the years. Widely discouraged in the 1920s, the practice saw a revival in the 1980s, as interest in Turkey’s traditional cultures grew.
More recently, the events have been criticized by animal rights activists, who persistently claim that the event can be harmful to camels.
As for my camel story: in 2007, as a carefree young backpacker, I spent several months traveling through Syria, my heart being exploring the arid lands and ancient archaeological sites in the east of the country. Along the way, I bought Alfie, a graceful and beautiful dromedary.
I had originally planned to travel to Petra in southern Jordan, but soon after reaching Damascus I struggled to get papers so Alfie could cross the Syrian-Jordanian border. Sadly, the Syrian bureaucracy prevailed, and after declining an offer from a Russian circus visiting Damascus, I was forced to sell Alfie to a Bedouin family. (Alfie has since been renamed Bradley and, last I heard, continues to roam the eastern Syrian Desert.)
As the festival draws to a close, stalls selling photos, calendars, videotapes and general camel props are packing up for the year. The animals are loaded onto large trucks and driven back to their corner of the Aegean region, or further afield, to prepare for the next round of competitions.