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While Americans are busy stuffing turkeys and stocking up on Christmas trees, Turkish camels and their owners prepare for an intense season of travel, confrontation, and competition. Every year, around 100 male camels tour the Marmara, Mediterranean, and the Aegean to compete in more than 30 wrestling festivals. Their primary motivation: get the girl. Camels will wrestle only during their mating season, which lasts from November to March, and a female camel is paraded around to provoke them into these contests. The camels' mouths are tied during the match so that they can do no real harm to each other, and between the judges, separaters (urganci), and commentators (cazgirs), there are 21 officials (not including the camel owners) moderating the events.
A wrestling camel can expect to compete in 10 to 14 matches per year. The camels begin their wrestling "career" at age four, when they are purchased from Iran. They train for the next four years and spend years eight through 10 coming of age and developing their own strategies. Their right of passage, much like that of Turkish boys' occurs at this age, when the camels receive havuts, decorative cloths with their name and the word masallah (may God protect him) sewn on the inside. According to camel owners and those familiar with the sport, wrestling is not a foreign, inhumane practice being imposed on the camels. On the contrary, these dayluk (as they're called until age seven, when they become tülü or hairy) begin wrestling naturally in the wild during their first years out of the womb, and if trained, can continue until age 25.
People have different theories about camel-wrestling's origins, although many argue it was a nomadic practice and part of the competition between caravan owners. Nomadic or not, these festivals have become a deep-rooted cultural pastime in Turkey. Celebratory events actually begin the day before, during hali gecesi, or carpet night, when camels are flaunted around to percussive music, their bells jingling as they amble along. The camel owners, who often get to know one another during the pre-festivities, are also dolled up in cornered caps, traditional neck scarves, and accordion-like boots.
To prevent wearing out the camels, the matches last no more than 10 minutes, and camels compete only once a day. The victor, the camel who gets the most points for outsmarting his rival by swiftly maneuvering and having the most control over the match (which might simply mean not running away), can win anywhere from $2,500-$25,000, depending on the competition. There's usually a wrestling World Cup of sorts at the culmination of the festivals, in which the top camels compete.
The exact dates, times, and locations of the festivals change from year to year, but competitions are always held every Sunday from December to March. The central and southern Aegean cities of Selçuk, Izmir, Bodrum, and Kusadasi host camel-wrestling festivals. Local tourism offices will have specific information about that year's festivals. Tickets cost around $7 per match and can be purchased on-site.
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