J and I have an inbuilt, genetic fascination with camel wrestling events here in Turkey. I know some of you out there will shudder and/or point an accusatory digit and even start sticking pins in voodoo dolls because you hate any and all forms of animal exploitation (but hope the pins will cause bits of my person to experience great pain or even fall off!). I understand your objections but remain unrepentant.
These events have their roots in the nomadic culture of Asia that goes back, quite possibly, for thousands of years. During the rutting season, which lasts just a few months, nomads would gather at long-established traditional sites for the prime purpose of breeding their she-camels with the strongest bulls. These bulls would go through a natural selection process amongst themselves by ‘wrestling’ for the right to pass on their genes.
In many respects it’s a bit like watching Mick McManus and Giant Haystacks without the gouging or forearm smashes. The animals can’t bite as they would naturally do because of a special binding on their jaws. I’ve never once seen a drop of blood or an injured camel apart from the occasional bruised ego!
J and I prefer to frequent the venues where the spectators are usually all local Turks – small towns and even villages away from the areas with expat communities. This is not a snobby thing but a seeking after the authentic experience because there is more than just watching these magnificent animals do their thing.
Towns like Buldan and Çal in Denizli Province are magnets to us and so worth the extra miles of driving to get to them. Often the only barrier between a couple of tons of tunnel-visioned contesting-for-the-damsel’s-favours camels and the picnicking spectators with their barbies, bottles of rakı and mixed grill is a chicken wire fence. When hormonal gladiators run amuk or even amok there is no funnier site than a bunch of shouting, gesticulating, well lubricated men trying to save their very hot barbie, rakı glass in one hand and waving plastic chairs at two single-minded, blind-to-all-else furry gladiators with rumpy-pumpy on the brain!
Finally, a couple of examples of why it is not a good idea to wear your Sunday-best or a hoody come to that . .
Let me finish off back where I started about animal exploitation: I accept that these days camel wrestling has become more of a spectacle for townies than a folk gathering of nomadic herders. I oppose commercial whaling in all its forms but support the rights of Inuit peoples to hunt at sea for food whether they use traditional tools or a powerful rifle. In the same way that Morris Dancers no longer believe the fertility angle in their entertainment I support the rights of Turks to enjoy a link to their nomadic ancestry – camel wrestling is not a blood sport, long may it continue!
‘The sexual life of the camel, Is stranger than anyone thinks.
One night in a moment of passion, He tried to deflower the Sphinx!
Now, the Sphinx’s posterior anatomy Is covered with sand from the Nile.
Which accounts for the ‘ump on the camel, And the Sphinx’s inscrutable smile!’
(a photo extravaganza first posted on Archers of Okçular 26.3.2012)
J and I have had much to ‘get the ‘ump’ about of late. Those who follow these rambling wanderings through time, space and reality will know of the quarry that has been opened next door to our home. Anyway, to escape the noise, dust and mud that kicks off our days at 6.30 every single morning, we decided to have a few days away at a spa and take in some Camel Wrestling as well.
For those of you worried about blood sport or cruelty, let me reassure you that I’ve attended many a bout in my years in Turkey and I’ve never seen a camel hurt or in any way disturbed by the presence of the noisy audience. The animals are focussed on just one thing – being top-dog in the hierarchical world of bull camels at a time of year when the ladies are feeling receptive.
To set the scene, you need to know that camel wrestling is not a touristy thing; it takes place over the winter months when the females are in season. With the steady expansion of winter tourism and with many more foreign residents around these days, venues near these centres now see a lot more ‘yabancı’ (foreigners) than used to be the case. For this reason, J and I prefer to frequent those places that are less ‘polished’ and less concerned about the image they are projecting. Rejecting the concrete safety fences of Selçuk for the chicken wire of Yatağan or Nazilli or Buldan suits us fine. Some of these venues are just a cleared area of forestry land, or an open space in the middle of a derelict works area, or, as was the case at Buldan where this post is set, a space in the middle of a quarry that was accessed through the town rubbish tip!
As we drove through the mounds of rubbish and dust we did wonder if the sign pointing us this way might not have been turned around as a prank. Our doubts soon evaporated as we joined the back of a queue to get our tickets from the Zabita (municipal police) – it was mayhem as drivers behind tried to pass on both sides on a track wide enough for one. We handed over 15 lira and got our ticket to admit one car and as many people as could jam themselves inside; pretty good value for a family day out. We drove forward just a couple of metres where we were again stopped by the Zabita who demanded our ticket, tore it into bits, chucked it with the rest of the rubbish and waved us through! Burası Türkiye! This isTurkey!
Being obvious foreigners, we drew a lot of polite interest and we were soon adopted by the members of an Ottoman Marching Band; photos were taken, cards exchanged and we now find that we are to be their honoured guests whenever we are in Denizli.
For those who have never experienced an event like this, it can best be described as a total assault on the senses. There are the sounds and sights and smells that emanate from thousands of people talking, drinking and cooking; there are tea vendors, candy-floss and balloon sellers; sausage makers, video sellers and those cooking meatballs and sausages on huge ‘barbies’; there are wandering bands of traditional folk musicians and the over-loud public address system. In the case of Buldan, there were the colourful uniforms of the Denizli Fatih Mehteri (Ottoman Marching Band), and then, of course, there are the stars of the show, the bull camels, decked out in all their finery; foaming and slobbering at the mouth and pumping out bucket loads of testosterone induced pheromones! The overall effect on the sensibilities of the new visitor is incredible – J and I have been attending these things for a while now and we still get a huge buzz. If you love spectacle and you love people-watching, you won’t find a better combination anywhere.
It is worth remembering that the bulls are behaving as they would ‘in the wild’ where the instinct to gather as many females together as they can by seeing-off any likely competitor is so powerful that everything else pales into insignificance. To avoid any possible injury to these valuable beasts as they compete, they have a cord tied around their jaws to prevent biting.
The contests between bulls amounts to a great deal of pushing and shoving with attempts to topple the opponent by wrapping a head and neck around his front legs. Some bouts are over quickly, others are called out of time by the judges – sometimes one of the beasts will take off for the hills and, chicken wire fences being no impediment, they end up scattering chairs, picnics and people! For me, some of the funniest moments come when two bulls, locked together and oblivious to anything around, end up by the fences – off come the spectators’ hats, up come the plastic chairs and there follows a totally ineffectual pantomime performance as the crowd tries to shoo the animals away. The wise would simply leave their place by the fence, but then they’d be giving up a prime spot and you know what Turks are like in a queue!
In the end there will usually be a winner with one animal being ‘pinned down’; a judge blows a whistle and two teams of ten to a dozen men move in, get a rope around each bull and then proceed to pull them apart – no easy task. In the end the beasts are separated and immediately begin to act like perfectly behaved gentlemen, showing no interest in any more brawling.
Buldan proved to be one of the very best venues we’ve been to – once through the rubbish tip, the atmosphere was brilliant – from here on the photos can do the talking. Back at our spa hotel we were able to have a nice long soak in the hot mineral waters and replace the smell of meatballs and rutting camels with the whiff of sulphur from the bowels of the earth – Sheer Bliss!