The Memory of a Civilisation

Written by M.Mücahid Demir

Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournament, which will be held for the 654th time in the old Ottoman capital city Edirne, is a cultural heritage and an ancient tradition that has come from the lands of Central Asia and survived up until today.

Wrestling is a world of rhythm and charm of the preludes of the meadow wrestlers accompanied with the exciting rhythms of the drums and shrill pipes. With its almost seven hundred year history, it challenges all of the institutional sports of history of man. It is impossible for the five hundred year old sumo wrestling, or a hundred and thirty year old tennis tournaments or today’s other popular sports organisations to stand up against Kırkpınar. It is for this reason that wrestling is more than a sport for the Turks.

For the Turks of Anatolia, the history of wrestling proceeds in conjunction with the conquests. Turkish armies’ passing onto Europe through Gallipoli was one of the most important events in Turkish history. The invasions had begun and there was no stopping. The fighters were heading towards the Turkish dream.

The first target was Edirne. Veteran soldiers who advanced towards Edirne through wars, won the Ghazi (War Veterans) Highlands War in May, 1357. Shahzade Sulaiman and his warrior friends, who were overjoyed with this victory, started to wrestle on the surrounding highlands on the day that coincided with Hıdrellez. This was to be both a celebration and training for the upcoming battles. The forty brave men, who set out onto the clearing, started to wrestle amongst themselves. In each pairing, many lost and winner have won. However, there were two brave ones whose wrestling did not come to an end until the moonlight shone above them. After a very long time, both Selim and Ali fell exhausted from the game, collapsing like great plane trees onto the meadows. The war veterans, who approached them both, saw that they had died. After burying them both under a fig tree side by side, the men returned back to their quarters.

After a short time following the ¨The Wrestling of the Fourties¨, Shahzade Sulaiman fell off his horse during a hunting trip close to Gallipoli and died. His brother, Shahzade Murad and his friends reached their target in 1361. Edirne now belonged to the Turks. And with the death of his father Orhan Ghazi, Murad now became Sultan Murad I.

Sultan Murad and the war veterans had returned back to the site where they had buried their friends in order to pray and make a proper burial site for them. However, upon their arrival, they were astonished to see that a spring was flowing from the area where they had buried their friends. They considered this to be a sign of their friends attaining the glory of Allah thus naming the area ¨Forty Springs¨. Ever since that day, this area becomes cheerful with the Kırkpınar oil-wrestling contests in memory of these two brave men.

Just like the brave warriors, whose names were given to Kırkpınar, all of our wrestlers who gallantly wrestle in various areas of Anatolia, carrying their names throughout history, continue to inspire the lovers of wrestling with their games and their heroism. Perhaps the most famous name in wrestling is Bald Aliço.


Aliço, who is considered to be the champion wrestler in the history of Kırkpınar, was born in 1844 in Pleven. Aliço, who begins to wrestle at a very young age, draws great attention in a very short period of time. He begins to take part in the Kırkpınar contests. Bald Aliço, who was brought to Istanbul as a gifted wrestler upon the orders of Sultan Abdulaziz by his wrestler Kavasoğlu Ibrahim, initially led him to become the Head of the Candlestick Makers with his loyalty to the Sultan and his naivete and bluntness and later, the Head Wrestler of the Palace following his fellow townsman Kavasoğlu. Bald Aliço, who was the head wrestler of Kırkpınar for twenty six years, was considered the true hero until he left wrestling in 1894. Although during those years he received the award for three continuous years of being the head wrestler, he ought to have received nine golden belt awards.

Great Yusuf, who was born in 1857 in the Karalar village of the town of Shumen located today within the borders of Bulgaria, is also considered to be one of the most prominent names in wrestling. Yusuf, whose childhood was spent during the years when his village was under constant attack by the Bulgarians, draws attention with his agility, strength and mastership as well as his bluntness, bravery and spiritual sensitivity.

Great Yusuf, who cannot find a trainer by the age of twenty, works solo on his wrestling. In 1885, Great Yusuf has a cut-throat tie with Aliço, who had been the head wrestler of Kırkpınar for twenty six years. Later on, Aliço accepts that Great Yusuf is worthy of the title of head wrestler and willingly passes his title to him. As of that days, Yusuf becomes the head wrestler of the Ottoman Empire. Never was another wrestler able to attain this title from Yusuf.
It is impossible not to mention those who have exhibited the art of wrestling before the eyes of the modern world on the grasslands of Kırkpınar. Black Ahmet, who is the Turkish legend considered to be ¨Wiser and more technical than Yusuf¨, in the words of the French legend Paul Pons, who himself had wrestled for seven and a half hours and in only four contests. He was the champion who had attended the ¨World Professional Wrestling Championships¨, in other words, he was the world champion during the contest that was organised in December of 1899, when the famous Eiffel Tower had been built…

Although he had perhaps much less in strength compared to that of the other legendary wrestlers like Great Yusuf, Adalı, Kurtdereli, Filiz Nurullah; he was, however, the first Turkish wrestler to have become the world champion with his sagacity. Black Ahmet, known also as the World Champion, is the first name to have introduced Turkish wrestling to the world.

There are foundational dynamics of the Kırkpınar wrestling contests that the westerners are completely foreign to: the sense of history, cultural depth, tradition… As well as these values within its social dimension, it also consists of religious principles, moral beauties, humanitarian sensitivities and literary arts: all of these create a state of magical exquisiteness around the concept of wrestling. Only a few world sports are embodied with such a spiritual pattern. The wrestler, who forms the axis of wrestling, was considered to be the symbol of the values, defined by the historians as ´The City of Virtues¨. Being and staying a wrestler was all dependent on this matter as all of the criteria was developed with meticulous work and became crystallized over many centuries. And traditions could only be transfered to the future as such.

Murad I had built the Edirne Wrestlers Lodge for the sturdy, powerful, skilled youth so that ¨the Muslim army could entertain themselves¨. As part of an understanding that considers holy wars as ¨weddings¨, wrestling was considered a form of entertainment due to its spirit. The founders of the sports’ lodges, the famous leaders of the lodges were all dervishes who were ready to sacrifice their lives in the path of the holy war. The Wrestling Lodges were undertaking sport as an ideal and for a purpose. The purpose of these lodges were to train and educate the wrestler in every aspect.

Generosity, honesty, modesty, patience, morals, manners, respect towards values, bravery and most importantly, maturity was more important than strength. The opposite of the characteristics of the wrestler, consisting of all of these attributes, was unthinkable and would be banished from society. The philosophy that the contest being more important than the victory was always engraved within the minds of the wrestlers at a young age and they would then be sent onto the field of contests always with prayers and religious interjections. The wrestlers, who fought with a spirit of war and conquest, continue to enlighten the hidden bridge of civilisation from the past on to today.

The Turkish ancest sport, wrestling, is a cultural heritage and an ancient tradition that has come from the lands of Central Asia surviving till today with its prayers. It is for this reason that wrestling today is the sport where Turkish athletes are most successful. There are currently more than 150 fields in Anatolia that are still active and in which all wrestlers, whether young or old, are involved in the tradition. Oil-wrestling, which is kneaded with manners and morals on the field of contests of the brave ones, is in fact a memory of civilisation.

About the author

M.Mücahid Demir

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