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The Selcuk camel wrestling festival takes place in January every year

The Selcuk camel wrestling festival, one of the most important, is held every year on the third weekend of January in the town of Selcuk, near the western Turkish coastal city of Izmir. On the first day, there is a beauty contest, on the second, the main event – the wrestling. The fighting arena in 2019 saw 124 camels wrestling each other in short duels, part of a centuries-old Turkish tradition, on January 20.

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Neck and Neck
Erol Bilgin’s camel, Kara Elmas (Black Diamond), might not have won the beauty contest the day before, but it might well fare better in the main event, the wrestling competition. Two large camels stand face to face, sizing each other up, before throwing themselves head-first at one another. Each animal struggles to bite its adversary’s feet to topple them, their long necks interlocking as the crowd cheers.

More than 2,000 people, many settled around little tables for picnics, spur on their favourite to win. There are boos too, for those owners down in the arena who intervene too much in the matches. The contests take place in the western Turkish town of Selcuk, at a site just a few minutes from the Aegean coast.

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Camels in Turkey
Camel culture in Turkey dates back to the Yoruks, a nomadic people whose ancestors were the ancient warrior Selcuks, who arrived in Anatolia during the 11th century. The first camel fight was formally organised in the region around the 1830s, says Devrim Erturk, an academic at Dokuz Eylul University in Selcuk.

As the nomads settled, the camels were used for the transport of goods, mainly towards the western ports of Turkey. “And the cameleers started to make their camels fight” in the places they stopped at in the region, Erturk said. He himself owns several camels, including a two-year-old male that he wants to see wrestle in the arena.

Nearly 90 such events have been organised to take place in the region from Canakkale in the northwest to Antalya in the southwest between December and March. This is the reproductive season for camels – when the males who fight are naturally more aggressive – and a quieter period for residents, as agricultural activity slows in the winter.

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Like Family
Animal rights groups often call for the fights to end, denouncing them as cruel. But everyone at the arena insisted that all necessary measures are taken to protect the camels, including tying a cord around their mouth to limit the opening and biting.

“For a cameleer, their camel is very precious... so the owners do all they can to ensure no harm comes to (their animal),” said Erturk. “Many carry the name of the cameleer’s children. My father gave my name, Devrim, to one of his camels.”

One of those in the audience is Abdullah Altintas, who is attending the festival with his wife, Nilgun. “My father and grandfather had camels, it’s an ancestral tradition. Alas, I don’t have any but I go to see all the duels,” he said.

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Keeping Traditions Alive
On the first day of the festival which is the beauty contest, owners paraded their champions through the town for local people to see. The camels crossed the market dressed in colourful fabrics with their names embroidered on, garlands of bells and the Turkish flag.

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Bilgin, from the nearby Mugla province, caressed his nine-year-old camel Kara Elmas, whom the jury had not favoured this time in the beauty contest. “Obviously each person believes their camel is the most beautiful,” he says. The two spend around 10 hours a day together, adds Bilgin, picking a straw from the thick fur of his camel, who he describes as “calm, respectful and sensitive”.

Selcuk mayor Dahi Zeynel Bakici is a champion of the festival. “Camel culture has declined, but we want to keep it going,” said Bakici. To this end, in addition to the fights, an international symposium had been organised in Selcuk for the third year in a row, with around 100 participants. The aim, said Bakici, is to continue the traditions in order to eventually secure a coveted place on the UNESCO list recognising intangible cultural heritage.

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Camel Sausages
The next morning, in the dark warehouse where Kara Elmas has spent the night, Bilgin makes sure everything is fine. Because of the long distance they travelled the day before, his camel was “a little agitated but here he was able to relax before the fight”, he says. “He knows what happens next.”

Around the arena, people stroll between the camels and the grilled sausage stands – all certified “100 per cent camel meat”. From early on in the day, the mostly male audience enjoys their picnic with a glass of raki, a strong aniseed-flavoured liquor. But this does not prevent them from reciting verses from the Koran before the festivities begin.

The fights, for which there are no prizes, last a few minutes. They end after one camel manages to topple the other, or forces them to run away. Many of the duels end in a tie, with neither camel able to make the other submit.

Down in the wrestling arena with their camels, the owners urge their charges on, trying to push their sometimes uninterested protégés into combat. On occasion, security guards even have to step in to separate owners who themselves have come to blows.

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Pride and Joy
When the name of his camel is announced, Bilgin leads Kara Elmas into the arena, parading the animal in front of the spectators before lining him up with his adversary. The two camels throw themselves at each other, each repeatedly brought to their knees as they try to throw each other off balance. But neither falls, the judges declare a tie and the camels are separated. Bilgin is ecstatic. “I am so emotional. He fought very well, beyond my expectations. I am really proud,” he says, stroking the imperturbable camel’s neck.

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