Walking down the street through the market stalls of Selçuk on a January Saturday afternoon, a cacophony of noise erupted. Hurrying to see what was happening, we ran to the town square. There backed by a huge banner of Atatürk on one side and an ancient aqueduct on the other, was the largest camel I have ever seen. He was frothing at the mouth and decked out in all the latest camel finery. His saddle, covered with colorful felt and sequins, made him look like he was at least twelve feet tall. There would be no way that I wouldn’t mess around with him.
What was he doing here? Does Turkey have camel races like some other Middle Eastern countries? And why was there so much slobber being generated in that mouth? Every time he swung his head around, the spittle flew in long streams through the air, landing on any unaware bystander. Next time, I might just bring my umbrella. Yuck! Boncuk, as this particular camel was named, was showing off.
The next day, on the third Sunday of January, he was about to enter the rink and wrestle one of his comrades in drool. Wrestle? Why? Both of these are great questions. Due to it being “that” time of the year (when male camels and female camels want to get together), he naturally wanted to make sure that no other male would see “her” first.
Taking the camels’ natural desire to ward off rivals, the ever-industrious Turks decided to make a day out of it and have a competition. Owners buy a wrestling camel, called a Tulus, for no other reason than to dress him up, parade him through town, and pit him against another camel on this particular day each year.
The camels are pampered and loved, and in turn, are very loving to their owners. I saw one poor camel, quite a bit confused and maybe a little scared, kissing his owner over and over for a little assurance. Yes, on the lips! Big lips!
After a nice little walk through town, with a band merrily playing their drums, clarinets, and other loud instruments, the camels are loaded up on the trucks, taken home for one more night of pampering and a good night’s sleep. Early on Sunday morning, they are loaded up and driven to Pamuçak beach, about 5 kilometers from Selçuk. The crowds are pouring in, the camel sausage vendors are lighting up the coals, and the camels are tethered in a long line waiting for their turn in the rink.
The competition begins. The two camels are waiting for their turns, and when the whistle blows they are supposed to either pin their opponent or make him run from the fight. The crowd goes wild as one camel dives under the other, nipping at his ankles and trying to get him to fall over. When this is accomplished, a win is announced.
That is the win that the Turks really appreciate. If one of the competitors actually runs away, he does so with boos and catcalls from the crowd. He won’t want to be showing his elongated face around the town square anytime soon.
All in all a very interesting event, the camel wrestling festival is a must-see if you happen to be in western Turkey in January. To get there, you can either train or fly into Izmir, take a bus to Selçuk, and from there hire a taxi or a dolmuş (smallish bus) to get you to Pamuçak beach. No worries, because that’s just about where everybody is going!
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.