The arena was packed with raucous fans who sat in tiered seating around the wrestling pit below. Camels were paraded in and out of the ring dressed to the nines, their elaborate saddles emblazoned with their names, origins, and trainers or owners.
The annual camel-wrestling festival near the town of Selcuk, held in mid-January on Turkey’s Aegean coast, almost overwhelms the senses. When I went to the event in 2017, sausages sizzled on stalls around the arena, and old men chain-smoked cigarettes while drinking beer or raki, a traditional Turkish drink made with aniseed. There was low chit-chat, the occasional collective gasp, and, of course, the odour of damp camel hair and excrement. (Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the festival was cancelled this year.)
Camels naturally wrestle in the wild, and staged matches are restricted from becoming too boisterous. A camel wins by making its opponent scream, fall, or retreat, and trainers stay close by to ensure no one is hurt. Winners receive a mass-produced Turkish carpet, and despite the fact that betting is illegal, low-level wagers between fans frequently take place, either in the form of a few drinks or a few Turkish lira.
Camel packs were used as pack animals along the Silk Road in mediaeval times because they were well suited to desert conditions. Nomadic tribes continue to use them in much of Central and South Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. They are still used on occasion in Turkey.
The community of Turkish camel owners, trainers, and dromedary lovers is still vibrant and competitive, with roots in ancient Turkic tribes. However, in modern Turkey, the festival has become something of a niche expression. It appears to be as much about socialising, gossiping, and drinking these days as it is about the camels battling it out in the sand.
As a former camel owner (more on that later), I had been looking forward to attending the festival since moving to Turkey almost a decade ago. Hip young Istanbul friends grumbled that the practise was an obscure and mawkish event, akin to Turkish oil wrestling, that only tourists knew about or cared about. Surprisingly, the spectators were almost entirely Turks.
The camel men are a lively bunch who adore their animals. Several trainers, including Yilmaz Bicak, slept with the camels in a barn on the outskirts of town overnight to ensure their safety and deter thieves.
Tulu camels, which are bred specifically for wrestling competitions, are a breed that results from mating a Bactrian (two-humped) camel with a dromedary (one-humped) camel.
To ensure the welfare of the animals, the camels wrestle once a day for about 15 minutes. Before entering the ring, the male camels are brought close to a female camel, but they are not allowed to touch, resulting in sexual tension that the trainers claim gives the males extra strength.
Camel wrestling has risen and fallen in popularity over the years. After being widely discouraged in the 1920s, the practise saw a resurgence in the 1980s, as interest in Turkey’s traditional cultures grew.
More recently, animal rights activists have criticised the events, claiming that they are harmful to camels.
In 2007, as a young and carefree backpacker, I spent several months traipsing through Syria, my heart set on exploring the barren lands and ancient archaeological sites in the country’s east. I bought Alfie, a gracious and handsome dromedary camel, along the way.
I had intended to ride to Petra in southern Jordan, but after arriving in Damascus, I was unable to obtain paperwork for Alfie to cross the Syrian-Jordanian border. Unfortunately, Syrian bureaucracy won, and after turning down an offer from a Russian circus visiting Damascus, I was forced to sell Alfie to a Bedouin family. (Alfie has since been renamed Bradley and, as far as I know, is still roaming the eastern Syrian desert.)
As the festival draws to a close, the vendors selling photos, calendars, videotapes, and other camel-related items pack up their wares for the year. The animals are loaded onto large trucks and driven back to their Aegean region or further afield to prepare for the next round of competitions.