Brawling Beasts of Burden The Wrestling Camels of Turkey

The west coast of Turkey has a tradition of camel wrestling, which pits champion beasts from local villages against each other in a dusty stadium. But it tends to be as comic as it is exciting, since camels aren't natural-born fighters.

They may not wear an elastic singlet or an athletic supporter, and they may have no talent for a full nelson. But camels can wrestle. Disbelievers are invited to visit the Aegean coast of Turkey in the winter, where villages and towns hold camel wrestling matches every weekend.

Camel wrestling is an open-air stadium sport pitting two bulls against each other, encouraged by an alluring cow, who's paraded in front of the contestants and led away. The male camels froth at the nose and mouth, and then -- if the crowd is lucky -- start to fight. The object for a wrestling camel, usually, is to dominate his rival by sitting on him.


The problem is that camels aren't built for battle. They can be nastily temperamental and prone to using their teeth; but a camel-wrestling match is a struggle for dominance using whatever method occurs to the animals at the time. The camels are muzzled -- colorfully -- to avoid bites, but a match might involve growling. Or it might be a chase around the arena. Or it might be a knock-down grudge match between genuinely belligerent camels trying to pin each other with their furry necks.

The sport's origins are obscure, but it probably started as a form of competition between nomad caravans in the Middle East. Now the tournaments have been elevated to festivals, with competing camels -- some representing whole villages and towns -- dressed in knit tapestries and paraded through the streets beforehand to percussive music and bells. The camel owners dress up, too, in traditional caps and scarves.

Camel wrestling takes place during camel mating season, between November and March. Turkey has a professional camel-wrestling league centered around the town of Selcuk, near Ephesus and Izmir on the western coast. Matches last no longer than 10 minutes each, as a rule, and judges award points to the animals for style, instead of waiting for serious injuries. But a typical match ends when a camel decides he's had enough and runs away, sometimes into the crowd.


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