The arena was filled with raucous spectators who, in tiered seating, surrounded the wrestling pit under. Camels were paraded in and out of the ring, dolled up in their greatest regalia, their elaborate saddles noting their names, origins and their trainers or proprietors.
Held in mid-January on Turkey’s Aegean coastline, the annual camel-wrestling pageant around the city of Selcuk almost overpowers the senses. When I attended the event in 2017, sausages sizzled on stalls bordering the arena old adult men chain-smoked cigarettes while sipping down beer or raki, a classic Turkish drink created with aniseed. There was the reduced din of chitchat, the occasional collective gasp and, of training course, the odor of moist camel’s hair and excrement. (The pageant was canceled this yr simply because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
Camels obviously wrestle in the wild, and staged matches aren’t permitted to get as well boisterous. A camel wins by producing its opponent scream, slide or retreat, and trainers remain close at hand to be certain neither party is hurt. Winners are rewarded with a mass-generated Turkish carpet, and, even with betting remaining unlawful, low-degree wagers typically just take position between enthusiasts, possibly in the form of a couple of beverages or a handful of Turkish lira.
Properly suited to desert disorders, camels were being utilised in medieval periods as pack animals together the Silk Street. They’re still made use of by nomadic tribes in a lot of Central and South Asia — in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Occasionally they’re even now used in Turkey.
With a legacy rooted in historical Turkic tribes, the community of Turkish camel entrepreneurs, trainers and dromedary lovers is nonetheless vivid and aggressive. But the competition has come to be something of a specialized niche expression in present day Turkey. These days, it would seem to be as a great deal about socializing, gossiping and consuming as it is about the camels battling it out in the sand.
As a previous camel operator myself (extra on that afterwards), I was significantly eager to show up at the pageant because moving to Turkey virtually a 10 years in the past. Hip young Istanbul buddies moaned that the observe was an obscure and mawkish occasion, very similar to Turkish oil wrestling, anything that only travellers know or treatment of. To my shock, however, the spectators ended up almost all Turks.
The camel guys are a lively bunch and treatment deeply about their animals. Several trainers, this kind of as Yilmaz Bicak, slept with the camels overnight in a barn on the outskirts of city, to make sure their well-staying and deter burglars.
The animals employed in wrestling gatherings are acknowledged as Tulu camels — a breed that effects from mating a Bactrian (two-humped) camel with a dromedary (a single-humped) camel — and are bred exclusively for the competitions.
The camels wrestle at the time a working day, and every match lasts around 15 minutes — all over again, to secure the animals’ welfare. Right before moving into the ring, the male camels are brought close to a female camel, but the animals are not permitted to touch, ensuing in a sexual stress which the trainers say provides the males with additional power.
Camel wrestling has fallen in and out of favor over the years. Mostly discouraged in the 1920s, the practice noticed a rebirth in the 1980s, as desire in Turkey’s regular cultures grew.
Additional just lately, the occasions have appear under criticism by animal rights activists, who persistently claim that the party can be damaging to the camels.
As for my camel story: Back in 2007, as a youthful and carefree backpacker, I expended various months traipsing by way of Syria, my coronary heart established on exploring the barren lands and historic archaeological sites in the east of the place. Together the way, I bought Alfie, a gracious and handsome dromedary camel.
I’d at first prepared to trip to Petra, in southern Jordan, but, shortly soon after reaching Damascus, I struggled to get paperwork for Alfie to cross the Syrian-Jordanian border. Alas, Syrian paperwork prevailed, and, after declining an present from a Russian circus checking out Damascus, I was compelled to sell Alfie to a Bedouin family members. (Alfie has considering that been renamed Bradley and, final I read, continues to roam the eastern Syrian desert.)
As the festival draws to a shut, the stall holders marketing photographs, calendars, videotapes and typical camel paraphernalia pack up for the calendar year. The animals are loaded up on to large vehicles and driven back to their corner of the Aegean region, or even more afield, to put together for the next set of competitions.