Camel Wrestling in Ephesus

/ By Josh

So it turns out that camels wrestle. In Turkey there’s a league, judges, referees, commentators giving play by plays with all the different moves and positions that camels use in a bout. Now part of what made me really excited to go to this event was that when we told our Turkish friends here in Istanbul that we were going to a camel wresting festival they were surprised that there even was such a thing in Turkey! And as it’s our goal to find those hidden gems of nature, culture, and history that are scattered across this country we took this as a sign that we were on the right track!

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Camel wrestling was serious business to this ref who kept a steely glare on the action at all times

Sean and I picked up a rental car one Friday afternoon in Istanbul and drove south with Sean’s camel-hating wife, Melissa, and our friend Dirk until we arrived at our guest house in Selçuk late that night. If you’ve been to Turkey before there is a high chance that you’ve been to Selçuk already; it’s the home to the ever popular Greco-Roman city ruins of Ephesus and a huge tourist destination.

However, all the next day it was abundantly clear that the middle of January was off-season and it felt like we had the place to ourselves! We checked out the open air museum on Ayasuluk hill right in the town itself and wandered through the ruins of the Basilica of St. John (St. Jean Kilisesi) and the hilltop castle behind it (museum entry fee was 10TL for a one-time entry pass available at the gate. For more about the Museum pass system in Turkey click here).

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Ayasuluk Castle seen from the ruins of the Church of St. Jean

From on the hilltop we spotted a rather odd looking mosque on the backside of hill and so went for a little visit to Isabey Cami before lunch (that’s Mr. Jesus mosque in English. Doesn’t translate quite right does it?). Built in 1374 by the Bey of Aydin in the Damascus style, İsabey Mosque is a great opportunity to see something a bit different if you’re really into the history of Islamic architecture.

So, a quick note about lunch, there’s a little shop called Selçuk Pide (check them out on Trip Advisor), where we ate WAY too many times. Their pide is great but the key here is their tahinli pide (pide topped with sweetened sesame paste and crushed walnuts) which is amazing and actually quite unique in the country as far as I can tell. I’ve asked a good number of well-traveled people in Turkey about it and it seems no one has seen it anywhere else! I confess we ate here four times in a three day trip…

After lunch we went for a quick visit to the picturesque town of Şirince which is nestled in the hills about seven kilometres from Selçuk itself. If you’re looking for a more ‘authentic’ feeling experience I would definitely suggest spending a night in one of Şirince’s many historical guest houses and sampling the local wine around a fire at night.

Sunday was the main event. Sean and I woke early to catch the sunrise in an empty Ephesus (except the ever-present cats and dogs of course). Sunrise and museum opening were at the same time so we had to be quick to catch the sky lighting up over the empty streets and squares but it was definitely worth the effort. I would highly recommend visiting the ruins when they’re empty; it’s an entirely different experience from the massive summer crowds.

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The empty streets of Ephesus at sunrise

After our brisk tour of Ephesus we went to the highlight of our weekend and what has now become one of my top events in Turkey:

CAMEL WRESTLING!

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I know I shouldn’t start off describing camel wresting like this but if I’m totally honest two camels shoving each other about isn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be. This is partly because they’ve stopped parading a female in heat around the place, something that would rile the animals up too much resulting in injured camels and people. Melissa, when asked by a TV reporter, said she had expected it to be more exciting. She’s now facing a lifetime ban from taking part in this blog.

So how is it still one of my favorite events? What was lacking in serious action was more than made up for with general hilarity. The excitement came from those matches that did heat up a bit more and ended up right against the fence where the camels would drool huge amounts of frothy slobber all over the audience and their food! Or when a camel would decide to lay down and have a good roll right in the middle of the walkway nearly knocking over bystanders, BBQs, and the big racks of camel sausage (you can’t really blame him for wanting to take out a BBQ or a stand of camel sausage though can you?).

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Buckets of camel drool is a key part to this
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A contestant flees a match while the handlers try to get the animals back under control

A camel wrestling match usually consists of two males shoving each other around, locking necks, carrying one another, pinning each other by the neck, and bucket-loads of drool. Sometimes a camel takes off running which is great because then you get to watch people try to catch them again. When a camel is declared the victor the handlers throw ropes over the wood frame on the camel’s back and try to haul the contestants apart. It’s when this happens that you really realize how big and strong these animals are compared to us!

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With damp weather people were slow to arrive but by noon the place was full

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The people at the event were honestly the most friendly I have seen yet in a country that has treated us great for over two years. As we ran around to try and get different shots and just mingle with the people we were regularly invited to share in their food and drink, which even led to a weird moment of cigar sharing at one point. Sharing is a big part of Turkish culture. Many strangers shared their food with us and for them it was totally normal to take my cigar without asking and give it a try. Some people were dressed up for the event in different types of regional clothes, and nearly everyone was willing to have their picture taken; not common for Turkey in my experience.

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This guy showed up ready to pose!
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A couple of guys wearing leather boots in a traditional local style

For the most part I really enjoy Turkish food, however, camel sausage isn’t exactly one of Turkey’s top dishes. I bought a kilo and Sean bought two. So much regret. The way they cook it at the event isn’t that bad but it’s also not something I would look forward to having again. If you’re not at all adventurous food wise, bring your own food or survive on the handouts, because apart from snacks and drinks there isn’t much else available that isn’t camel. Cooking it at home filled my house with a pretty potent odor that hung around for a while.

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The sausages look better than they taste

The night before the main event we met a group of camel trainers in a shop and shared a crate of local mandarin oranges with them and, better yet, got to be in the ‘in crowd’ with the handlers the day of the event!

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This is Havuç (the human) with Sebastian (the camel) who turned out to be a bit of a coward. We’re assuming Havuç is a nickname, as it means carrot.

 

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Sebastian all dressed up to run from a fight

Camel wrestling is definitely entertaining but like anything in life, you get what you put into it. What made a fun event awesome was mingling with awesome people and being willing to really get into it. If you don’t speak any Turkish don’t let that stop you from trying to make friends. Because of the tourism in the region many people speak a bit of English and if you act friendly, outgoing, and willing to chat, even if there’s very little true understanding going on, then this can really be an exceptional event to see Turkish culture and just have a great time.

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Sean and I with our cowardly friend

Other than the names of the people I travel with there is a good chance that the names have been changed for the sake of their own privacy.

1s & 0s by knowler