The ancient tournament of Kirkpinar has drawn fans of Turkish oil wrestling for more than 650 years. Two decades ago author Aydin Bengisu and renowned gay photographer Ron Amato attended the annual festival to document and better understand the male-bonding physicality of the sport. On the 20th anniversary, Amato shares this exclusive gallery of photographs perfectly complimenting Bengisu's lyrical description of the sport, its history, and the fascination it continues to hold.
Photographs by Ron Amato, Text by Aydin Bengisu
In the summer of 2001, when the world was a different place, I set out to capture a piece of my heritage. As a boy, I had heard about a Turkish homeland from a father who always had one foot firmly planted there. Fantastic wrestling camels, revolutionary zeybek soldiers in colorful garb, and the Yağlı Güreşleri (“oil wrestling matches”) of Kirkpinar were all part of an ongoing oral history lesson. I absorbed these stories over hot cups of Turkish tea as snow piled on the pines, maples and mountain ashes of our wild backyard in Southeastern Michigan. Two decades later, I persuaded my friends Ron Amato, a photographer, and Degen Pener, a writer, to fly with me to Turkey to experience Kirkpinar—a sport that has been held annually since roughly 1360, making it the longest-running athletic event in the world. The 642nd Wrestling Games were about to become my very first.
When we arrived in Edirne after a 5 hour bus ride from bustling Istanbul, it was as if we’d stepped back in time. The famous 16th century Selimiye Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011, built on the orders of Sultan Selim II, by master architect Sinan, greeted us as we came to a screeching halt in a cloud of dust. It stands as one of the best examples of Islamic and Ottoman era architecture.
The city of Edirne, located near the Bulgarian and Greek borders in Western Thrace, is way off the beaten tourist track. Once known as Adrianopolis, after the Roman emperor Hadrian, who founded it around A.D.125, it was also the capital of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Although the original Kirkpinar took place in present-day Greece, today it occurs on the island of Sarayiçi, located in the middle of a river. You cross an ancient Ottoman stone bridge to reach Sarayiçi, where a new stadium is built around a still visible ancient amphitheater. Once over the bridge, the frenzy begins. Musicians, travelling spectators and vendors of all kinds engulf the area around the stadium. As the sun beats overhead and the last of the morning dew burns off the grass, teams of wrestlers begin to flow into the arena: shirtless, oiled and ready to go at it with their comrades.
Several legends surround the beginnings of the Kirkpinar matches. The Turks ascribe the sport to Ottoman soldiers. One story holds that the matches began when Suleyman Pasha arrived in Thrace or Rumeli with his 40 “yiğit” or brave, young men; during breaks they passed the time by wrestling. One night, two of the soldiers were locked in a match so intense they both died. Their comrades buried them under a fig tree near the spot where they had wrestled and then continued on toward Edirne. When they returned to visit their friends’ graves the following year, they found several natural springs (pinar) bubbling in the spot. Since the number 40 (kirk) is also a sacred number in Islam, the Ottoman Turks decided to hold a commemorative festival in their honor: Kirkpinar or “forty springs.”
Other historians believe the wrestling event grew out of a response to a malaria epidemic, “Roman Fever”, said to have been one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. Legend has it that the Anatolian people (modern-day Turks) discovered that spreading olive oil on their bodies protected them from malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Still other historians point to a direct connection with the athletes of ancient Greece, who oiled their bodies prior to participating in games. However, there is also much evidence linking the sport to ancient Iranian and Indian wrestling styles.
In terms of its size and prestige in Turkey, Kirkpinar is the Superbowl of wrestling. Instead of two teams, however, hundreds of amateur wrestlers from various parts of the country converge on Edirne for three days in the summer. The event is the culmination of many regional matches. Only the best are invited to compete. Wrestlers are grouped into eleven categories and classed by height — not weight — from toddlers up to the forty-member pehlivan (hero in Farsi), or warrior status. Clad only in leather trousers called kispet, the wrestlers begin with the practice called Yağlama — applying diluted olive oil from large copper urns to one another's bare bodies from head to toe. It is estimated that two tons of olive oil is used each year during the event. While the oil serves to both establish an even playing field and complicate the act of wrestling, wrestlers also say that it helps to heal their wounds more quickly. There is an official Yağcı (oiler) who helps with the process.
Rules are few save for the "40 minutes per match" limit. The wrestlers compete until one is pinned or one’s chest is thrown in the air. The goal is to get leverage. So inserting a hand or an arm into an opponent’s leather pants is actually a strategy. The importance of tightening one’s pants is as much a key to victory as being able to toss an opponent. A younger champion who defeats an older champion kisses the elder's hand.
Ron Amato’s photographs honor the rich history of oil wrestling in its current incarnation. Kirkpinar is at once modern, yet very much steeped in time. Amato has framed the photographs in a way that transcends the obvious physical gesture and brawny exterior of the wrestlers. His artfully crafted photographs seem to breathe. And his intuition guided us to some very unexpected moments led by a force beyond himself. He didn’t hesitate to catch wrestlers crying in defeat or showing off their muscles. “Every time they saw me aim the camera at them, they’d play to me,” says Amato.
The open and unaffected physicality of the Kirkpinar wrestlers’ initially takes one aback. For a westerner — even a Turkish-American like myself — the warmth and ease with which the athletes touch each other is confusing, because it does not have a contextual precedent in the United States. The pat-on-the-butt gesture seen among uniformed American baseball players, for instance, seems much less physical when compared to the shirtless, oiled bear hugs and kisses the wrestlers regularly bestow on each other. Somehow, after viewing match after match, our eyes became accustomed to the wrestlers’ behavior. We began to see that the affectionate gestures were signs of camaraderie. Boys hugging boys and men hugging men became a symbol of sportsmanship and good intention. In essence, Kirkpinar represents brotherhood in its truest sense.
Ron Amato is a Professor in the Photography and Related Media department of Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ron’s art practice revolves around his identity as a gay man. Some of the issues explored in Ron’s work are aging within the LGBTQ community, male representation in social media and the ongoing attack on LGBTQ people by federal and local governments. His book, The Box, visually represents Ron’s journey from a boy born into a second-generation Italian-American family in Brooklyn, NY to his current position as a respected educator and artist. Ron is a leader for diversity and inclusion on the FIT campus, serving nine years on The President’s Diversity Council. He has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally. His seminal exhibition of sexual self-portraits in NYC in 2000, established Ron as a leading queer artist. He has a BFA in Photography from School of Visual Art, NYC and an MFA in New Media Art and Performance from Long Island University. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his husband, Seth, and their two Fox Terriers, Ben and Zeb.
While writing has always been a part of his life, since 2005 Aydin Bengisu has been a licensed practitioner of Acupuncture and Chinese medicine. He utilizes a highly effective holistic approach emphasizing customized herbal formulas and advanced acupuncture treatments for many health challenges.
His passion is to strategically support his patients utilizing evidence-based current science and time-tested approaches developed through years of education and clinical knowledge working with masters in the field. He is among a handful of internationally certified Chinese medicine practitioners in the highly specialized field of herbal dermatology. He also offers treatment for many people in the areas of addiction, autoimmunity, gastrointestinal health, supportive oncology and pain management. He aligns with his patients, becoming both an advocate for their health and encouraging them to develop their own voices.
When he’s not in the clinic helping people, he enjoys brushing up on his Spanish and Turkish, photography, collecting art, reading, gardening and connecting with nature amidst the mountain trails all around him in greater Los Angeles.