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New Europe

Day Forty-one: Selçuk

Selšuk 
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Selšuk. Camels gather beneath the arches of a Byzantine aqueduct. The elaborately decorated saddle (hamut) is put on four months before the wrestling, so they can get used to its weight.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAs the tension rises the camels have their wicker muzzles removed, though their jaws remain restrained by thin string to prevent any serious biting. Then they're divided off into pairs. The unstoppable commentator's voice rises an octave and, finally, the wrestling begins.

Despite the foaming and the starvation and the randiness some of the camels seem remarkably uninterested in starting a scrap, and have to be raced towards their opponents by the urganci. Once they get locked together their necks seem to do most of the work, pushing against each other and occasionally entwining so that two heads appear to spring from one neck, a surreal parody of the double-headed Hapsburg eagle.

The camels are divided into three categories, roughly corresponding to small, medium and large, and after some inconclusive early bouts things move up a gear as the more popular heavyweights, roared on by their supporters, face up to each other.

One breaks away from its minders and gallops off across the ring, aiming straight for any other camel it can find. Two more collide so hard that one of them is completely lifted off its front legs and remains inelegantly suspended for quite some time as the other one tries to kick his back legs away. Which is not as easy as it looks, for the back legs, thin and spindly as they may appear, are, once splayed, as tough as steel cables.

There are certain established moves in camel-wrestling, which they call 'tricks'. Biting ankles and forelocks seems a speciality, and the headlock, with the opponent's head trapped between the two front legs, is much appreciated, except of course by the camel whose head it is. Ribbons of saliva fly everywhere as they push, grab, bite and lock before a winner is declared and the rope men rush in to haul the beasts apart.

In early afternoon, a near-perfect bout has the crowd on their feet. Two top-weight camels are, without doubt, wrestling. Leaning, twisting and grappling each other with their long, thickly maned necks. After a long stalemate, one begins to dominate, slowly forcing the neck of his opponent down onto the sand. Then the other flicks his neck away and they start again, until not only the head but the entire trunk of one of the camels flicks over and lies in the dust. What with the shrieks from the crowd, the manic thudding of drums, and the apoplectic ranting of the commentator, I feel I've been knocked out too.

I've had a glimpse of another Turkey, away from metropolitan Istanbul. A glimpse of the strength of old traditions (the 20,000 crowd here was almost entirely Turkish). But even here there has been much change. Selšuk's population has doubled in the last twenty years and the once quiet bays of the Aegean are choked with holiday apartment blocks. But perhaps the most poignant image of change is the vehicle ahead of us as we leave the wrestling arena. It's a pick-up truck, and in the back, wrapped tight in a white canvas sheet, with only its head protruding, is a magnificent Iranian camel. For thousands of years his ancestors carried the trade that made Europe rich, Now he's another commodity.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty-one: Selçuk
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Selšuk
  • Book page no: 107

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