Camel Wrestling on the Aegean Coast

Photo by Nathan William Meyer.

Photo by Nathan William Meyer.

Drums pound along the Aegean coast. In a natural amphitheater only miles from the ruins of ancient Ephesus the air is split by wailing horns and the raucous cheers of 10,000 spectators drunk on raki and the brute intoxication of camel wrestling. In the arena a pair of Tulu camels grapple with powerful necks and legs while referees circle them, ready to name a winner when one drops to the ground or breaks to run.

On the thronged hillside gamblers cheer on their camels, musicians with wailing flutes stoke the tension to a fever pitch, and vendors push through the crowd hawking shawls and Efes beer. Above the din a crackling loudspeaker calls the match a draw, the crowd erupts in shouts and cheers, and the camel owners pull their frothing behemoths apart.

Camel wrestling is an ancient Anatolian sport originating among Turkic tribes well over 2,000 years ago, a tradition still seen along Turkey’s Aegean coast. Each year tens of thousands of people flock to the annual Camel Wrestling Championship in Selçuk, Turkey where well over 100 male camels dressed in flamboyant saddles and decked with bells compete under leaden winter skies. Injuries during matches are rare, as the massive camels are far too loved by their owners. Most ten-minute bouts end in draws.

Though the sport is in decline and each year there are fewer competitors, there are still some 30 annual camel wrestling festivals held in Aegean Turkey each year. In 2011 it was estimated that Turkey had 2,000 Tulu camels, a one ton hybrid of Dromedary and Bactrian varieties bred specially for wrestling. Successful camels can be sold for as much as $20,000. While some animal rights groups have criticized this tradition as cruel, camel wrestling remains less a blood sport and more a competition of heavy leaning and frothing spit, where champions win machine-made carpets and the true losers are the trampled egos of proud owners.

Nathan William Meyer is a freelance photojournalist and international affairs writer.