The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival
For more than 650 years Turkish men have been gathering in grassy fields once a year to strip naked except for tight black leather trousers, pour olive oil over their entire bodies, and wrestle for a few days.
The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival, which holds a Guinness World Record for the world’s longest-running sports competition, is held each year around the end of June in the town of Edirne, located on the triple border of Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria, about two hours’ drive from Istanbul. The grappling lasts for a week, but grunting combat is not the festival’s only attraction: the competition takes place midst a carnival of folk-dance groups, janissary bands, and millions of spectators from Turkey and around the world.
Victory is achieved when one wrestler either pins the other to the ground or lifts his opponent above his shoulders, and competitors receive considerable prestige throughout Turkey should they emerge as champions; many have even been cast as a bronze statues and erected near the wrestling stadium. Contests are also held for the best dance performance on entering the ring and for the most gentlemanly in behavior.
Camel Wrestling Festival
Along Turkey’s Aegean coast during the winter you will have the chance to witness a bewildering spectacle: camel wrestling.
Winter is breeding season for Tülü camels—which are hybrids of the two-humped Bactrian and one-humped dromedary—a time when they are in their greatest sexual fervor and can easily be coaxed into brawling.
The tradition was brought into Turkey from Central Asia during Ottoman times by Yörük nomads, a clan of Turkic people who created the sport over 2,000 years ago.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, had actively discouraged the competitions, proclaiming them to be archaic and non-European, and in the early 20th century the tradition was dying, but after the 1980 military coup a new regime revived the tradition because of its association with pre-Islamic heritage. Over the past few years the competition has undergone a renewal of public interest, inspired by government efforts to promote tourism along the Aegean coast during the winter season.
A number of basic rules govern these competitions. A camel can win a match by pinning his opponent, knocking him to his knees, or making him flee the arena.
Nearly 20,000 spectators, mostly poorer men from Turkish villages or nomads, showed up to 2012’s championship in Selçuk, with similar numbers expected in 2013.
Every year in December admirers of the philosopher and poet Dželaladdina Mevlana Rumi—known to many simply as “Rumi”—throw a festival in honor of their beloved teacher in the pious city of Konya, where the Mevlana is buried. The event attracts more than a million visitors and pilgrims annually.
2012 will mark the 739th anniversary of Rumi’s death and although many events commemorate this event around Turkey, the most spectacular celebration takes place over ten days in Konya. Beginning on December 7 with a magnificent show at the Konya Mevlana Cultural Center, the event continues until the evening of Seb-i Arus, or the “Wedding Evening”, on December 17.
The main attraction during the celebrations is the semas, or whirling dervish ceremonies, which are performed twice a day by dervishes from the Konya Turkish Sufi Music Association. The semas last roughly three hours and are quite frankly breathtaking. The dancers, said to be intoxicated by a divine ecstasy, twirl like dreidels around the perimeter of the dance floor while nearby a band plays spiritually uplifting melodies.
Besides the sema performances around 150 different events, including symposiums, conferences and plays on the Mevlana and his teachings, take place throughout the city.
Nevruz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the new year in the Iranian calendar, has its roots in Ancient Persia and was originally a Zoroastrian festival, but these days it is also celebrated in many parts of the world, including cities in Turkey that have a large Kurdish population.
According to Kurdish legend, on Nevruz day a humble blacksmith named Kawa inspired an uprising against King Dehak, the evil Assyrian tyrant who had enslaved the Kurds and had caused Spring to abandon Kurdistan forever. Kawa’s rebels stormed Dehak’s imperial palace and Kawa seized Dehak by the throat, split open his skull with a hammer and dragged his lifeless body from the throne. Afterward he proclaimed freedom throughout the land and lit huge fires on the mountaintops to notify people in the distant stretches of the Middle East that their freedom had finally arrived.
Igniting the Nevruz fire and then either leaping over it or dancing around it is a continuation of this tradition, although this version, the Kurdish story of Kawa, is an aberration from the Zoroastrian origins of the Nevruz fire, where it symbolizes the victory of light (goodness) over darkness (evil).
The Kurds celebrate Nevruz at the end of March. It is considered to be the most important holiday of the year. The biggest celebration occurs on the outskirts of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Nearly a million people attend the festivities in Diyarbakir annually.
It should be noted that unlike other places where Nevruz is celebrated, in Turkey the festival takes on a unique political dimension. It is a time when Kurds can come together and demonstrate their cultural unity. It was only in 2005 that the Turkish government lifted its ban on celebrating the holiday, and the festivities remain a theater for defiance and Kurdish nationalism.
The International Folklore Festival
Bursa’s International Folklore Festival began in 1962 as the Bursa Festival and Horsemanship Bairam. It takes place in mid-July and is one of the city’s oldest festivals.
The purpose of the celebrations is to revive old Turkish traditions through music and dance competitions. Today, folk dance and music troupes groups from around the world attend the festival, creating a multicultural atmosphere that is meant to unite peoples in the name of friendship, brotherhood and universal peace.
The highlight of the festival is the folk dance competition, where dance troupes from diverse nations demonstrate their cultural traditions and compete for the Karagöz prize, which is awarded to the best three ensembles. In 2011 the competition featured 100,000 dancers from 35 different countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Ukraine.
Manisa Mesir Festival
The traditional Mesir Festival has been celebrated in the ancient city of Manisa—located in Turkey’s Aegean Region—every March for nearly 500 years.
What does the festival celebrate? Well, it celebrates gum, but not just any gum. Mesir gum is blended with 41 different spices and is known as “power gum.” It is said to have been invented by Hafsa Haftun, the wife of an Ottoman Sultan, as a general remedy and tonic. It supposedly cures everything from the common cold to sore knees. Manisa locals, thankful for Hafsa Haftun’s wondrous invention, fling it down from the minaret of the Sultan Mosque once a year during the celebrations.
The festival lasts eight days and includes plenty of craft exhibitions, concerts and sporting tournaments. It also provides a great opportunity to stock up on photographs of Turks dressed in traditional Ottoman costumes driving carriages through the streets.
Istanbul International Film Festival
Surfeited by traditional festivals? Why not relax and take in a few flicks at the Istanbul International Film Festival?
It is the first and oldest international film festival in Turkey and is held every year in April in movie theaters around Istanbul. The aim is to encourage the development of the Turkish film industry and introduce quality films from around the world to the Turkish public.
The festival was first organized in 1982 within the frame of the International Istanbul Festival. It has since established a firm position among the world’s major film festivals.
In 2012 the festival celebrated its 32nd year, with more than 2,065,000 spectators having attended the screenings of more than 2,500 films from 72 different countries.