Istanbul Feature


Grease Wrestling

The Mediterranean is known for its olive oil, but the Turkish have become famous for using it to lubricate a national sport: Yağlı güreş, known in English as grease or oil wrestling.

The Super Bowl of grease wrestling takes place over three days in late June or July, at Kirkpinar in Edirne. Traditionally, matches lasted until one competitor's strength was sapped (which, in ancient times, could be several days!), but in 1975 official bouts were limited to 30 to 40 minutes. It's still pretty brutal though, with temperatures in Kirkpinar nearing 100°F and no time-outs or water breaks. Broken teeth, bad bruising, and silky-smooth skin are all risk factors.

The wrestlers wear calf-length pants known as kisbet. Kisbet were originally made from the skin of a water buffalo, but are now made from leather or canvas. A wrestler can declare victory in two ways, by pinning his opponent to the ground, or by picking him up and carrying him three steps.

Homer once referred to olive oil as "liquid gold," but these athletes hope to use their physical prowess to turn liquid gold into real gold coins. Champions, known as baspehlivan (chief hero), are in great demand as coaches and trainers. One of the most famous was Ahmet Muhtar Merter, who three-peated his glory in 1957, 1958, and 1959. In Istanbul, the Merter neighborhood is named in his honor.

The olive oil used in the match at Kirkpinar is culled from local harvests.

Over the course of the three day tournament at Kirkpinar, more than two tons of olive oil is used.

The Kirkpinar tournament has been held near Edirne since 1362, making it the world's oldest continual sporting event.

In the Ottoman Empire, wrestlers learned the art in spiritual centers, similar to those attended by Japanese Sumo wrestlers.

Wrestlers oil each other prior to the match as a demonstration of mutual respect.

Wrestlers can perform as many as 42 different moves within a match, and often spend as much as 30 minutes manuevering before trying a paça kazik, or pants grab, which usually ends the match.

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