Photo credit: CC BY-3.0 (J Alemañ, 2013)

Mention the spectator sport of pitting two animals against each other and cockfights and dogfights easily come to mind. Not as known but nonetheless a long-time tradition is camel wrestling, which originated over 2,400 years ago as a form of competition between nomadic tribes and a source of entertainment out in the desert.

Camel wrestling in its modern form is practised in some areas in the Middle East and South Asia, but is most associated with the Aegean region, situated in the western and south-western part of Turkey. This traditional sport, once practised all over Turkey, is seasonal, with most contests held between the winter months of December and March. The biggest event of Turkey’s camel wrestling or deve güreşi season, the Camel Wrestling Championship, takes place annually in January in the town of Selçuk, in a stadium near the ancient ruins of Ephesus. The festival showcases about a hundred camel wrestlers from local villages and draws thousands of people — camel owners, villagers and tourists.

Colourful, comedic spectacle
What actually happens during a camel wrestling tournament? Two adult male Tülu camels — decorated in brightly coloured embroidered cloths and pompoms — are led into an arena or stadium and egged on by their owners and event organisers to fight. Usually there is the presence of a female camel in heat nearby or paraded in front of them, so as to spark a battle. If there is indeed action, a camel is crowned winner if it can make the opponent fall, retreat in defeat or scream within a 10-minute bout.

Unlike some other spectator sports involving animals such as bullfighting, cockfighting or dog fighting, camel wrestling is not associated with brutality as no blood is shed by the animals. The owner of a camel can stop the duel at any time by throwing a rope into the stadium to declare a forfeit if he feels that his camel risks injury.

Lest you think watching camel wrestling is all sedentary, do note that spectators sometimes have to flee from an oncoming camel that is retreating in defeat from his opponent. Bystanders also have to be watchful and dodge foamy saliva and urine from these retromingent animals. In reality, however, the actual wrestling can be a little underwhelming to those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the sport; more often than not, the competition ends in a stalemate because neither of the camels can make the other tumble or retreat before the time is up.

Fringe benefits
While deve güreşi is the main reason for the festivities, there are many other activities associated with these tournaments. Food and beverage vendors set up stalls around the venue offering Turkish street food such as tantuni kebabs (beef or lamb) and deve sucuk or spicy sausage of cured camel meat.

One day before the competition, the animals get paraded through town with fanfare in a pageant-like event accentuated with music in the form of drums and zurna, a wind instrument. Later in the evening, the Hali Gecesi or “Rug Night” takes place, where camel owners and acquaintances network and build their relationships through eating, drinking, chatting, singing traditional songs and possibly selling rugs.

So if you’re ever in or around Turkey during camel wrestling season, and you’re looking to experience something out of the ordinary and inextricably linked to Turkish culture, maybe a pair of well-dressed camels will be right up your alley.