When Camels Collide

Once a fixture of life and commerce during Ottoman times, camels have made a comeback in modern Turkey, this time in the ring

By / May 2015

Kanka, Turkish for “dude,” thrusts his neck up under the leg of Ozer, the “true man. Both are draped in banners and bright packsaddles. Saliva foams from their mouths. Kanka flexes his neck and shoulders. He hoists Ozer onto his two back legs. Kanka won’t be satisfied until Ozer is on the ground. Welcome to camel wrestling, staple of rural entertainment in southwestern Turkey.

By now, in mid-March, when more than 100 camels arrive in Buldan, a small town on the western-edge of camel-wrestling territory, the season is nearly over. Most of the animals have shed hundreds of pounds from their summer weight of more than 2,500. During the off season, the camels put on weight consuming barley, wheat and straw. In the winter, though, they don’t eat but rather draw on the stores of nourishment in their hump. Most owners only let their camels drink twice a week during the season.

For the three days leading up to a match, they drink nothing at all. Otherwise they won’t wrestle. And a lot depends on them wrestling. On weekends from December to March, thousands of spectators descend on dozens of events to watch hundreds of cameleers bring their prize-winning beasts of burden head to head. On any given weekend, there are three or four events scattered around the Aegean region. All along terraces dug into the hillside above the arena in Buldan, fans overload plastic tables with raw beef and chicken, bread, and alcohol, especially the local anise-flavored Raki.

Lots of Raki. Smoke from hundreds of grills simmering with red peppers, onions, chicken wings and Turkish meatballs mix with the scent of freshly graded dirt. More than a few flat bed and open-top box trucks parked along the site’s perimeter serve as makeshift bleachers. Everyone glances anxiously at the ominous rain clouds threatening to spoil the day. A roving hat-seller capitalizes on the biting cold, while other vendors hawk posters, flags, and cotton candy.

Photograph by Josh Hinton

Ibrahim Ozcan, a die-hard follower, confesses his family’s addiction to these events. “It’s our culture, it’s our ancestors’ sport,” he explains. “We look online each week to see where the best camels are going to be, and we go there, every Sunday for four months. Then the season ends, and life is monotone again.”

Okhan Acikgoz, a Saraykoy-native, has three camels in competition. One of them has a nicotine addiction. When cigarette smoke tickles his nostrils, he contorts his mouth and rears his head back to take in a long drag. In a small store room Okhan keeps decorative halters and banners, reminders of previous camels he, his dad, and his granddad have owned. One of the banners reads “Fallujah.” His friend, an officer in the army, sent the animal as a gift from Iraq. But today in Buldan all three camels sport their wrestling gear – brightly colored, carpet-like packsaddles. Though they add to the wrestler’s bulky appearance, they’re stuffed with dried reeds so as not to add much weight.

Despite how it appears, the contest is more than just a mess of fur and spit. The camels use strategy, tactics that come natural to them. Typically a bull will have a go-to move. Frequently the two beasts lock up shoulder-to-shoulder and push aggressively, a move called “the scissors.” Some camels go for a “single,” trying to wrap up one of their opponents’ legs with their neck then push him over. Another move is a “neck press.” When an opponent’s head is down, a camel will press down hard with his own neck, trying to pin his opponent to the ground. Sudden bursts of applause identify certain moves as clear crowd favorites. But with more than fifty matches, lasting up to ten minutes each, the rhythm of technique and applause passes into an almost indistinguishable current of dominance-displaying camel aggression.

Though there aren’t cash prizes for the winners, there is a lot of cash involved in camel wrestling. Tournament organizers draw crowds by locking in the best competitors for their events. And that means money. The organizers cover all travel costs and pay the cameleers $500 for each camel they bring. But big-name camels can fetch quadruple that. Only the male camels scrap — and only during winter, when the females are in heat. Although they don’t wrestle until they are seven years old, a newly-weaned one-year old camel will sell for around 10,000 lira, or about $4,000. And a mature camel’s price tag rises with his success. Kanka is the highest-priced wrestler on record. He was sold to his current owner for around $200,000.

Gulbus Pala, from Cine, brought his only animal, Wild Pala, a little over two hours to Buldan. He says that with the money he earns from the season he can cover all his annual expenses to take care of his prize fighter. Plus, all proceeds from local events generally go to support charitable causes. “When the community needed something—a road, a school, whatever—they didn’t wait for the government to finance it,” a camel-wrestling fanatic at the Cameleer’s Club told me, “they organized a camel wrestling event. Do you see that mosque over there? Its construction was financed 100% from camel wrestling.”

Photograph by Josh Hinton

It’s not surprising that Turks, a people proud of their history, value camel wrestling, since the sport is a legacy of a bygone era. During Ottoman times camels were used extensively for transporting goods and armies across the empire, and agricultural products to market. But with the advent of modern technology, the animals fell out of use. Now they wrestle. Current estimates put the camel population in Turkey at around 3,000 animals – just 2% of the camel population a century ago. Today, most of the animals are imported from Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Only around 10% of the camel population is bred and raised in Turkey.

Murat Akca, also a native of Saraykoy, breeds camels for competition. Among his herd is a two-humped, long-haired Bactrian camel named Pasha. At some point it was discovered, perhaps by accident, that breeding one of these males from Central Asia with a female, short-haired, one-humped Dromedary – found extensively in North Africa and the Middle East – produces an ideal wrestler. The resulting cross-breed offspring are called Tulu camels. They only have one hump but are thick-bodied, long-haired, and most-importantly, aggressive. Murat guesses Pasha is one of only five Bactrian camels in Turkey. And his sole purpose is to breed. But breeding requires females.

Out of the doorway leading into the ground floor of Murat’s house there is a constant cacophony of deep gaseous and gurgling noises. Standing on the dirt floor, tied up all along the footprint of the house, seventeen female Dromedary camels stand side by side. Three female camels enjoy the fresher air in the small courtyard, and four more take repose in a small detached barn. Twenty-five camels on what can’t be more than a quarter of an acre. But soon, Murat explains, the female camels will head to their summer home, four- and five-star hotels along the Mediterranean. For six months out of the year – during the off-season – Murat and his family charge tourists $10 for a short jaunt on one of his camels.

But Murat’s prized possession is a camel named Teodora the Conqueror, a wrestler that he and his three brothers inherited from their deceased father. Theodore has a reputation. Murat says he once received an offer of 400,000 lira, 10% more than Kanka’s final price. “We talked about it,” Murat says, “But for now, we aren’t selling him.”

As Kanka hoists Ozer into the air, the referees stop the match. Twice. Not an easy feat when the wrestlers are camels. When they start again, Kanka pushes Ozer over onto his side then struts around in triumph. To be sure, Ozer was a formidable opponent. But Kanka, at least for now, looks to be unbeatable. Perhaps next season, he will meet Teodora to see who is the true champion of the camel ring.

 

Andy Owens has written about rug merchants, Turkish baths, shepherd games, and the excavation of Laodicea for EthnoTraveler.

 

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