The arena was filled with noisy spectators who surrounded the ring pit below in tiered rows of seats. Camels were carried in and out of the ring, clad in their best regalia, their ornate saddles noted their names, origins, and trainers or owners.
The annual camel wrestling festival near the town of Selcuk, which takes place on the Turkish Aegean coast in mid-January, almost overwhelms the senses. When I attended the event in 2017, sausages sizzled at the stalls around the arena; Old men smoked cigarettes while drinking beer or raki, a traditional Turkish drink made from aniseed. There was the low chatter, the occasional collective gasp, and of course the smell of damp camel hair and excrement. (The festival was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Camels naturally wrestle in the wild and staged fights must not be left out. A camel wins by screaming, falling, or retreating at its opponent, and the trainers stay close to make sure none of the parties are injured. The winners are rewarded with a mass-produced Turkish carpet, and while betting is illegal, low-level betting often takes place between fans, either in the form of a few drinks or a few Turkish liras.
Camels were well adapted to the desert conditions and were used as pack animals along the Silk Road in the Middle Ages. They are still used by nomadic tribes in much of Central and South Asia – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Occasionally they are still used in Turkey.
With a legacy rooted in ancient Turkic tribes, the community of Turkish camel owners, trainers, and dromedary lovers is still vibrant and competitive. But the festival has become a niche in modern Turkey. Nowadays it seems as much about socializing, gossiping and drinking as it is about camels fighting in the sand.
As a former camel owner (more on that later), I’ve been particularly eager to attend the festival since moving to Turkey almost a decade ago. Hip young Istanbul friends groaned that the exercise was an obscure and sullen event, similar to Turkish oil wrestling, something that only tourists know or care about. To my surprise, however, the audience were almost all Turkish.
The camel men are a lively bunch and take great care of their animals. Several trainers, such as Yilmaz Bicak, slept with the camels overnight in a barn on the outskirts to ensure their welfare and deter thieves.
The animals used in wrestling events are known as tulu camels – a breed that results from the mating of a Bactrian (two-humped) camel with a dromedary (one-humped) camel – and are bred specifically for the competitions.
The camels wrestle once a day and each fight lasts about 15 minutes – again to protect the animals. Before entering the ring, the male camels are brought close to a female camel, but the animals are not allowed to touch, creating a sexual tension that, according to the trainers, gives the males extra strength.
Camel wrestling has grown in popularity over the years. Largely discouraged in the 1920s, the practice experienced a rebirth in the 1980s as interest in Turkey’s traditional cultures grew.
More recently, the events have come under fire from animal rights activists who insist that the event could harm the camels.
As for my camel story: As a young and carefree backpacker, I traveled through Syria for several months in 2007, my heart was set on exploring the barren land and the ancient archaeological sites in the east of the country. On the way I bought Alfie, a lovely and lovely dromedary.
I had originally planned to go to Petra in southern Jordan, but shortly after reaching Damascus, I struggled to get the documents for Alfie to cross the Syrian-Jordanian border. Unfortunately, the Syrian bureaucracy prevailed, and after turning down an offer from a Russian circus visiting Damascus, I was forced to sell Alfie to a Bedouin family. (Alfie has since been renamed Bradley and, as I last heard, continues to roam the eastern Syrian desert.)
Towards the end of the festival, the stallholders selling photos, calendars, video tapes, and general camel paraphernalia pack for the year. The animals are loaded onto large trucks and driven back to their corner of the Aegean region or further away to prepare for the next competitions.