Those who are lucky enough to attend one of the two Turkish wrestling (Oil Wrestling) festivals held in northern Greece, will definitely have the impression to have crossed the borders of Europe long ago… this ancient Turkish-Persian tradition remained in Greece as an inheritance Ottoman invasion.
An engraving dated around 1000 BC near Roussa.In this area of northern Greece, Eastern Thrace, there are a handful of villages inhabited by Pomaks, a Muslim minority that has never had it easy. They are too Turks to be Greeks and too Greek to be Turks… anyways…
Every year in August, two festivals are held with tournaments of oil wrestling, the national Turkish sport called Yağlı Güreş. The first meeting take place in the locality Hilia (or Hilgia), a plateau at about twenty kilometers from Roussa, at the beginning of the month and the second, at the end of month, in the locality Alan Tepe, 5 km from Kato Virsini. The dates are not fixed, they change every year according to the Muslim calendar and the only way to know for sure is to ask around once in the area. If I understood correctly the Hilgia festival falls on the first weekend of August, but i wouldn’t bet on it. I must admit that, while I speak greek and english fluently, communicating with the people of Roussa was almost impossible to me! However, with a little spirit of adventure you can manage, even if the feeling of being seen as intruders is quite strong. Trusting, however, that guests are sacred to both Muslims and Greeks, we parked our motorhome, just close to the village square and there we slept without any problems. Next morning we went, following the cars flow to Higlia (does not exist on any map) to get to the wrestling matches. A few hundred meters before reaching our destination we had to stop at an improvised roadblock, where we were asked to pay the ticket, which for some reason was not payed by everyone… anyway I must say that the figure was symbolic and that the ticket was official, printed in accordance with law.
Music and dancing, the official language Turkish, the festival begins under the watchful eye of the Agha, the master of the games. The participants in the tournament, called pehlivani, wear black leather pants called kispet, which are characteristic of this sport and they prepare pouring liters of olive oil on them selves before starting to warm up their muscles.
The competition begin with the youngest, to arrive in the early afternoon to heavyweight. The matches are single-elimination and the show is very exciting. Participants are not only Greeks, but also from Turkey and Bulgaria and it goes on until the last pair remains to confront for the title.
Since the oil does not allow for traditional holds, the only grip that remains are the pants of the opponent and this creates a bit “unusual” holds, but absolutely allowed by the rules of the sport.