In its 2,400-year history, the tradition of camel wrestling in Turkey has seen many winners and losers. But owner Ismail Egilmez had reason this year to celebrate a totally new kind of triumph. His beloved camel had just won the first-ever beauty pageant of its kind.
Standing in the main square of Selcuk, a town on Turkey’s Aegean coast that hosts the annual national championship of camel wrestling, he was at once composed and jubilant as he faced a minor scrum of local and international press. “I love the camel exactly as much as I love my family - it’s as precious as my kids,” he said.
The object of his devotion, seven-year-old Chariot, had just been crowned winner of Turkey’s first-ever camel beauty contest, held in Selcuk the day before the wrestling tournament.
The pageant featured a procession of drooling, half-ton males decked out in bright decorations, bells and bobbles, strutting before a panel of judges.
The spectacle marked the latest effort by camel wrestling organizers to reinvigorate an ancient custom that has been making a comeback over the past three decades. The day after the beauty pageant, 20,000 people gathered in a natural amphitheatre to watch the wrestling tournament, a turnout that countered the impression that the tradition is fading.
Fans jostled for a view at the front and laid out their picnics, as the scent of sizzling camel sausage mingled with the sounds of traditional Turkish pipes and drums and the boom of the commentator.
One owner, Rifki Sendur, 50, was waiting nervously for his camel, Cheerful Outlaw, to enter the arena for his debut encounter. He told Eurasianet.org that owning a camel had always been his dream. “My uncle had a camel in 1978, and we used to feed and look after it ourselves when I was about 15,” he said. “It's a culture coming from our ancestors and we want it to continue.”
Sendur brought Cheerful Outlaw about three years ago from Afghanistan after paying 20,000 Turkish lira ($12,800). Along with Iran, Afghanistan is the main source of wrestling camels, which are bred specially for the Turkish market, and are hybrids of the one-humped dromedary and two-humped Bactrian.
Wrestling camels, all male, fight when the females are in heat, are fitted with tight halters to prevent them biting each other. A victory is declared when one camel is either forced to the ground, or flees his opponent.
During the early years of the Turkish republic, the sport was discouraged since it did not tally with the modern, European image to which the state aspired. But in 1983 it was revived as a tourist attraction, and since then the number of camel owners has risen from 200 to more than 2,000 today.
Camel wrestling is a rich man’s game, according to Vedat Caliskan, an assistant professor of Geography at Canakkale University and an expert on the sport. Other than serving as occasional tourist attraction, wrestling camels have no practical uses. They cannot be bred, and the sport itself brings no financial rewards: the prize at the Selcuk tournament for a champion camel is a machine-made rug. “It is just the family interest that goes on and keeps the tradition going,” Caliskan said. “If … a new generation loses interest, it can die out.”
Caliskan and others also fear that the sport may become disconnected from its grassroots supporters due to the rising cost of buying and keeping the animals, and it could end up being merely a show for tourists.
For Metin Citak, the main organizer of the Selcuk tournament, the sport is about keeping alive the bond between Turks and the animal that served their nomadic ancestors for centuries, and which he sees as an integral part of Turkish heritage. “In the past, a camel was something you couldn’t live without, the lives of the camels and the humans were in symmetry,” he said. “Now technology and transportation have developed, but camel wrestling is important for the culture to remain.”
Citak hopes that the beauty pageant will not only attract extra visitors to Selcuk, but also hopes to strengthen the tradition of dressing and decorating camels, as well as encouraging owners to keep their animals in good shape. Necidet Durmaz, one the judges of the beauty pageant, said wrestling camels are naturals. “The camels have much deeper feelings than all the other animals,” he said. “They do all the right moves to please the crowd: they love it.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where he writes for the Times.