In Turkey, legend has it that one day in 1361, forty Ottoman soldiers came upon a meadow near Samona, now in northern Greece, and settled for a rest. But some of them began to wrestle. After a while, only two of them were left. They went on wrestling into the night. In the morning, their companions found the two had died from exhaustion. They buried the wrestlers in the meadow and left. One year later, when the soldiers came back to pay their respects, forty springs had appeared just where the two graves had been. The legend of Kirkpinar (Forty Springs) allegedly gave its name to an annual oil wrestling championship that has been organized in Edirne, a Turkish city in Eastern Thrace, since the 14th century. That makes of Kirkpinar presumably the world’s oldest continuously sanctioned sporting competition.
The dream of each wrestler (pehlivan) is to win the Kirkpinar Golden Belt and become a “chief wrestler” (baspehlivan). Şaban Yilmaz achieved this dream in 2005, at age 29. As a child, he used to attend tournaments with his father, Mustafa. Oil wrestling has been a part of his life as far as he can remember. Today, he continues to participate to oil wrestling tournaments all over Turkey, including the Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival. Being a pehlivan means much more than intense training and wrestling. It means more than wearing a kispet (thick trousers made of water buffalo or cow leather) and pouring oil on one’s body. In Turkish society, pehlivans are considered exemplary figures, promoting values such as generosity, honesty, respectfulness and adherence to traditions and customs. “Being a pehlivan is something that goes with you to the grave”, says Yilmaz, now 37. “A pehlivan never looks scornfully at people. Those who look down on people also look down on God. I always try not to hurt other people’s feelings. I respect the old and cherish the young. My body might look tougher than most people’s, but my heart beats the same.”