Camel Wrestling in Turkey

The air is thick with tobacco and barbeque smoke. The hills surrounding the sandy arena is filled with crowds of Turks, smoking, drinking tea and raki, eating barbequed camel in baguettes. There are about 100 camels, all dressed in their finery. There is a real festival atmosphere in the air.

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The Camel Wrestling Festival in Seluck is held on the third Sunday in January so I extended my stay by a day in order to attend. Seeing camels wrestling would be a bizarre event. I see a few women and families and even a couple of foreigners dotted around but the Camel Wrestling is predominately a masculine, Turkish affair.

Gypsies work their way through the crowds, selling balloons or playing music. There’s dancing, drinking, singing, eating and cheering. It’s mid afternoon and some of these people have been here since sun up but I don’t see anybody reeling drunk (yet) or becoming aggressive. Everyone is in a happy mood.

The people around me are mostly drinking tea and smoking, adding to the aromas from the portable (and not so portable) barbeques.

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Sehmus, my Kurdish ‘bodyguard’ tells me that people bet on the camel wrestling but I don’t notice. I’d have no clue on who to bet even if I did spy a bookie. I also have no clue who wins the matches. Sehmus doesn’t either and I suspect the much of the crowd is in the same boat but nobody seems to care.

The camels are all decked out in blankets and saddles. While they’re waiting for match, the camels are muzzled so that they don’t bite or spit (much more likely) on passers by.

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The camels wrestle in all their finery, the crowd can easily see what district the animal belongs to.

In the sandy arena are about half a dozen camels. The camels wrestle in groups of three in a knock-out round. Other camels are milling about with their trainers, legs splayed, flicking bodily waste with their tails. I can recognise the different personalities. Some of them are raring to go, others need a little encouragement.

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Two camels wrestle each other, using their long flexible necks and shoulders to nudge their opponents to the ground, sometimes biting them. Some lift their opponent under the necks, lifting their front legs off the ground. Others press into them, hoping to gain an advantage. As such, I can’t tell who wins. Is it the one on top, pinning the others head close to the ground, or is it the one of the bottom, using his neck as a lever to push up?

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Owners, trainers and official ‘camel boys’ are all on hand, ready to ‘break’ the fighters or coax them into the fray. The owners can ‘throw in the towel’ at any moment – these are prized animals after all. The camels wrestle, usually for no more than 60 seconds before they are pulled apart in a ‘break’. They are let loose again, nudging and wrestling each other until a winner is somehow declared.

Local favourite, the Selcuk camel, looks strong and ready to fight. Spit is flying. This is one of the few matches where I do understand the result. When Selcuk turns tail and flees from the stadium, with his opponent nipping at his heels, it’s clear who the victor is.

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No matter, the crowd cheered regardless.

I don’t know if there was prize money involved (I was told there was but couldn’t get to the bottom of how much or how it was decided). Every animal seemed to walk away with a new Turkish carpet.

Although it meant a night bus with little sleep, I’m glad I got to experience my first (and probably only) camel wrestling festival.

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I don’t know much about the ethics of camel wrestling, it seemed to be a foreign concept to those around me. I do know that no blood was shed and that the camels were pulled apart whenever it was deemed to be too dangerous or aggressive. Camel wrestling is on the decline but I don’t know if this is because of the expense of raising and caring for the animals or for any animal rights objections.  

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