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Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey
Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey Copyright Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Copyright Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Copyright Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

In pictures: Oiled up fighters clash in 663rd Turkish wrestling championship

By Theo FarrantAP
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The ancient sport, dating back to the 14th century, features wrestlers covered in olive oil grappling on a grass arena.

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There are few ways to better know a destination than by witnessing its national sport. In Türkiye, this means watching kispet-clad, olive oil-soaked wrestlers (or Pehlivan) grapple for supremacy in a ring.

This year, after nearly an hour of intense grappling with his opponent under the blazing sun, Türkiye's “Tireless Wrestler” was crowned the winner of the 663rd Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Championships.

Yusuf Can Zeybek, from the Mediterranean province of Antalya, retained the title he won last year in a contest said to date back to the 14th century.

The 30-year-old, who takes his moniker from the endurance he shows in matches, was among 40 wrestlers, or "pehlivans", taking part on the final day of the competition.

The bouts, which are staged on a grass arena in Türkiye’s northwestern Edirne province, were held under temperatures of 36°C, causing one contestant to faint and require medical attention.

A wrestler is doused in oil by an 'oiler, during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey.
A wrestler is doused in oil by an 'oiler, during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship
Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championshipCredit: Khalil Hamra/AP
A young wrestler waits for his turn to wrestle during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey, Saturday, 6July 2024.
A young wrestler waits for his turn to wrestle during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey, Saturday, 6July 2024. Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

Zeybek triumphed in the 56th minute of his match against Mustafa Tas, the 2022 champion, winning the golden belt and 550,000 liras (about €15,300) in prize money.

In the sport, which is on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, wrestlers cover themselves in olive oil, making it more difficult for opponents to grab them. The winner is the wrestler who makes his opponent’s back touch the ground.

It is said to have begun in the 1360s when the second Ottoman sultan, Sultan Orhan, wanted to keep his soldiers fit and ready for battle. But oil wrestling has been practiced across the region for thousands of years.

Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship
Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championshipCredit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Wrestlers exercise before competing during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship
Wrestlers exercise before competing during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championshipCredit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey.
Wrestlers compete during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey.Credit: AP Photo
Spectators watch wrestling rounds during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship
Spectators watch wrestling rounds during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championshipCredit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Wrestlers battle it out during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship
Wrestlers battle it out during the 663rd annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championshipCredit: Khalil Hamra/AP

The wrestlers are selected for their moral character and must be invited by the Kirkpinar master. The invitation is symbolically delivered by sending a red-based candle to the nominated pehlivans at the beginning of March.

During the event, they're covered in oil poured from a copper jug before the wrestling begins, and they engage in a highly ritualised procession to begin their bout.

To accompany the wrestling, spectators are entertained by dance performances, Davul drummers and local food vendors.

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