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New Europe

Day Thirty-eight: Edirne

Olive oil wrestling 
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Olive oil wrestling. After competitors have oiled themselves, the pairs of wrestlers stand in traditional pose; right; as the cazgir announces them with a poem and a quip.
Michael Palin - New EuropeSelen takes me a little way out of the city to see one of her favourite buildings, a multi-domed mosque complex of austere beauty apparently stranded amongst ploughed fields.

The Beyazit Kulesi, built in 1485, just over thirty years after Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, was intended by its founder to be much more than a mosque. It was also a school, guest house, mill, bakery, public bath, soup kitchen, and most intriguingly of all, a psychiatric hospital, which has been restored and opened as a Health Museum.

Entering a walled enclosure, we pass a row of domed consulting rooms giving onto a small garden and sheltered by an arcade. At the end of this two arches lead into the darüs-sifa, the healing house, where for nearly four hundred years those with mental illness could be treated with the most enlightened methods like music, odours and the sound of flowing water.

Each room has life-size figures illustrating various aspects of the therapy.
In one there is a melancholic, someone suffering from what Selen calls 'black love' or what we might call a broken heart. Another is labelled 'Room for Treatment by Keeping Busy', what we might call 'occupational therapy'.

The darüs-sifa, supported entirely by charitable donations, is all the more remarkable when you think that right up to the nineteenth century the only place for the insane throughout most of Europe was the madhouse.

Ironically the asylum here, having operated under the Turks for almost four centuries, closed its doors in 1878 when the Russians occupied the area and the Congress of Berlin confirmed the beginning of the end of the Ottoman empire.

As surprising to me as the existence of a four-hundred-year-old psychiatric hospital is the news that Selen, a small, serious, Istanbul liberal, went out for two years with a man who made a living from wrestling, while covered from head to foot in olive oil.

Not only that but she's taking me down to the banks of the River Meriç, which forms the border between Greece and Turkey, to watch this bizarre sport in action.

'Why oil wrestling?', I ask her.

Selen smiles. 'Turkish men are very macho,' she explains, 'and they have to do something about it. When my father was young he was always with oil wrestlers. Even before he went to school he was pouring for them.'

'Pouring?'

'You'll see.'
Olive oil wrestling 
click to enlarge 
file size
Olive oil wrestling. After competitors have oiled themselves, the pairs of wrestlers stand in traditional pose; right; as the cazgir announces them with a poem and a quip.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-eight: Edirne
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Edirne
  • Book page no: 94

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