ISTANBUL - On the eve of the traditional Kirkpinar oil wrestling competition, to be held in its 652nd year in the Edirne province in western Turkey, attention was turning to the “pehlivans,” as the wrestlers are called.

The pehlivans hailing from Istanbul have arrived in Edirne for the July 5-7 competition, but the contingent from Turkey's largest city will not be among the favorites.

The capitals of oil wrestling instead are Antalya, Karamursel, Samsun and the cities of the Thrace area. But it wasn't always this way: Istanbul was the center of the sport in Ottoman times, and Kirkpinar -- which was first staged in 1346 -- was just one of many tournaments held throughout the empire.

The top Ottoman-era pehlivans were trained and boarded at special lodges dedicated to the sport. According to well-known travel books by Evliya Celebi, there were two major lodges -- respectively in the Zeyrek and the Sishane neighborhoods of Istanbul.

The lodge at Zeyrek was a training ground in which promising youth from all over the empire were gathered and trained. The pehlivans had a special Turkish bath of their own at Kasimpasa, and were trained at the slippery art on the lodge's oiled marble floors.

Oil wrestling is considered Turkey's national sport, and resembles Olympic-style competition except that it takes place on open fields, matches can last more than 30 minutes, competitors wear long leather pants  -- and of course, the pehlivan are lathered with oil that makes every attempted grip all that much more difficult. (see video below)

All dried up

There are no pehlivan lodges in Istanbul today, nor are there many grounds to even practice oil wrestling. There is a field in Kagithane on the European side of the city and another on the Asian side -- the Samandira Wrestling Field, which was opened by Sancaktepe Mayor Ismail Erdem. The mayor is also the sponsor of the annual Sancaktepe Oil Wrestling event, which also serves as the qualifying matches for Kirkpinar.

It should be noted that the pehlivans in Turkey do not have a place to train during winter, except for Antalya and Karamursel where large investments are made in oil wrestling. Istanbul is among the cities with no winter facilities, meaning that the pehlivans are forced to spend the winter focused only on conditioning and strength practices at indoor facilities on Western Olympic-style wrestling. They return to wrestle on the grass when the spring comes. 

Famous names of the oil wrestling world in Turkey train at Sancaktepe. Among them is Serhat Balci, the captain of the national team of freesytle wrestling who has started oil wrestling this year. Daily practices last about two hours, where the pehlivans wrestle non-stop, constantly changing partners and getting tips and tricks from coaches.

Olive vs. sunflower oil

Oil wrestling uses olive oil, which does not burn the eyes and can be easily removed from the skin once it's been in contact with sweat. In some places, pehlivans use sunflower seed oil, which is less expensive.

In Istanbul, it's olive oil on the wrestlers' body, with sunflower seed oil used only to oil their kispets, the special, traditional pants worn while wrestling. The kispet has a tight waistline, and is not easy to put on when oiled. You first oil the inside of the kispet, then the crouch area, than the hip area in that order. It gets easier with time but beginners always have a hard time at first. The first try may even last up to 10 minutes without a little help from others.

Most pehlivans have a second job. Some in Istanbul are gym teachers, security guards, businessmen, students. There is even a pharmacist. But all are dedicated to the sport.

Taking the oil off from the skin is not hard if you have soap. But you must also find water at the wrestling site. Some pehlivans remember having to take baths in rivers, mosques, with water brought in bottles, or next to a fire truck... and one time, even in a morgue.