InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Oct 2007

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Turkish Oil Wrestling in Algiers

By Joseph R. Svinth

Copyright © EJMAS 2007. All rights reserved.

Editor’s note: The Ottoman Turks took Kirkpinar-style oil wrestling with them wherever they went. The following are some descriptions of the style in Algiers that were published during the early nineteenth century.

From Oriental Customs, or an Illustration of the Sacred Scriptures, etc., by Samuel Burder, Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1804, p. 78, citing Thomas Shaw’s Travels, 1738, p. 283

The Eastern method of building may assist us in accounting for the particular structure of the temple or house of Dagon (Judges 16,) and the great number of people that were buried in the ruins of it, by pulling down the two principal pillars. We read (v. 27,) that about three thousand persons were upon the roof to behold while SAMSON made sport. Samson must therefore have been in a court or area below them, and consequently the temple will be of the same kind… Several palaces and dau-wânas [diwan] as they call the courts of justice in these countries, are built in this fashion; where upon their festivals and rejoicings a great quantity of sand is strewed upon the area for the wrestlers to fall upon, whilst the roof of the cloisters round is crowded with spectators of their strength and agility. I have often seen several hundreds of people diverted in this manner upon the roof of the dey’s palace at Algiers; which, like many more of the same quality and denomination, hath an advanced cloister over against the gate of the palace, Esther v. 1 made in the fashion of a large pent-house, supported only by one or two contiguous pillars in the front, or else in the centre. In such open structures as these, in the midst of their guards and counselors, are the bashas, kadees, and other great officers, assembled to distribute justice and transact the public affairs of their provinces. Here likewise they have their public entertainments…

From “Moorish Wrestlers – Equestrian Performances,” The Sporting Magazine, London, 3:14 (November 1818), pp. 75-77

To the Editor of the Sporting Magazine.


I send you an extract from a work, written by Mr. G.A. Jackson, entitled “A Complete Picture of the Barbary States,” which I hope will obtain insertion in your Magazine, and am, yours,


In Algiers, as well as in other places, on Friday, their Sabbath, in the afternoon, they generally take their recreation, and amongst their several sports and diversions, they have a comical sort of wrestling, which is performed about a quarter of a mile without the gate, called bab el wait, the western gate [Bab el Oued, in French transliteration]. There is a plain just by the sea side, where, when the people are gathered together, they make a ring, all sitting on the ground, excepting the combatants. Anon there comes one boldly in, and strips all to his drawers. Having done this, he turns his back to the ring, and his face towards his clothes on the ground. He then pitches on his right knee, and throws abroad his arms three times, clapping his hands together as often, just above the ground; which having done, he puts the back of his hand to the ground, and then kisses his fingers, and puts them to his forehead; then makes two or three good springs into the middle of the ring, and there he stands with his left hand to his left ear, and his right hand to his left elbow; in this posture the challenger stands, not looking about, till some one comes into the ring to take him up; and he that comes to take him up, does the very same postures, and then stands by the side of him in the manner aforesaid. Then the tryer of the play comes behind the pilewans [pehlivan, hero] (for so the wrestlers are termed by them), and covers their naked backs and heads, and makes a short harangue to the spectators.

After this, the pilewans face each other, and then both at once slap their hands on their thighs, then clap them together, and then lift them up as high as their shoulders, and cause the palms of their hands to meet, and, with the same, dash their heads one against another three times, so hard that many times the blood runs down. This being done, they walk off from one another, and traverse their ground, eyeing each other like two game cocks. If either of them finds his hands moist, he rubs them on the ground for the better hold-fast; and they will make an offer of closing twice or thrice before they do. They will come as often within five or six yards one of the other, and clap their hands to each other, and then put forward the left leg, bowing their bodies, and leaning with the left elbow on the right knee, for a little while, looking one at the other just like two fighting cocks. Then they walk a turn again; then at it they go; and as they are naked to the middle, so there is but little hold-fast; there is so much ado before one has a fair cast on his back, they having none of our Devonshire or Cornish skill. He that throws the other goes round the ring, taking money of any that will give it him, which is but a small matter, it may be a farthing, a halfpenny, or a penny of a person, which is much. Having gone the round, he goes to the tryer, and delivers him the money so collected, who, in a short time, returns it again to the conqueror, and makes a short speech of thanks. While this is doing, two others come into the ring to wrestle. But at their byrams [bayram], or feasts, those which are the most famous pilewans, come in to shew their parts before the Dey, eight or ten together. These anoint themselves all over with oil, having on their bodies only a pair of leathern drawers, which are well oiled; they stand in the street near bab el wait (the gate before mentioned) without which are all their sports held, spreading out their arms, as if they would oil people’s fine clothes, unless they give them some money, which many do to carry on the joke. They are the choice of all the stout wrestlers, and wrestle before the Dey, who sits on a carpet spread on the ground, looking on; and when the sport is over, he gives two or three dollars to each. After which the Dey, with the Bashaw, mount their horses, and several Spahys ride one after another, throwing sticks made like lances at each other; and the Dey rides after one or other of them, who is his favourite, and throws his wooden lance at him; and if he happens to hit him, the Spahy comes off his horse to the Dey, who gives him money. After all which diversions, they ride to the place where the Dey has a tent pitched, and they spend the afternoon in eating and drinking coffee, and pleasant talk, but no wine. The Dey usually appears in no great splendour in Algiers; for I have seen him oftentimes ride into the town from his garden in a morning on a mule, attended only by a slave on another.

The Moors frequently amuse themselves by riding with the utmost apparent violence against a wall, and a stranger would conceive it impossible for them to avoid being dashed to pieces; when just as the horse’s head touches the wall, they stop him with the utmost accuracy. To strangers on horseback, or on foot, it is also a common species of complement to ride violently up to them, as if intending to trample them to pieces, and then to stop their horses short and fire a musket in their faces. Upon these occasions they are very proud in discovering their dexterity in horsemanship, by making the animal rear up, so as almost to throw him on his back, putting him immediately after on the full speed for a few yards, then stopping him instantaneously, and all this is accompanied by loud and hollow cries.

There is another favourite amusement, which displays perhaps superior agility. A number of persons on horseback start at the same moment, accompanied with loud shouts, gallop at full speed to an appointed spot, when they stand up straight in the stirrups, put the rein, which is very long, in their mouths, level their pieces, and fire them off; throw their firelocks immediately over their right shoulders, and stop their horses nearly at the same instant. This also is their manner of engaging in an action.

NOTE: During 1817, there were four deys of Algiers. Three of them were strangled by their household cavalry (spahi) and one of them died the following year of the plague.

From Excursions in the Mediterranean. Algiers and Tunis by Major Sir Grenville T. Temple, Volume I, London: Saunders and Otley, 1835, p. 219

During Shaban, the month which precedes Ramadhan, may daily be seen outside the Bab el Baheri, wrestling matches between the Goorshejis [e.g., yağlı güreş practitioners] a body of strong athletic Turks who are kept in pay by the Basha to amuse him during the long dull hours of the Muhammdan Lent. A month before this time, these men commence training and exercising themselves: with the exception of breeches made of very thick leather [traditionally, the hide of water buffalos], they are perfectly naked, and their bodies are copiously covered with [olive] oil. I never remember having seen even among our prize-fighters such powerful and iron frames, or greater feats of muscular strength and activity than these men displayed, and which vividly called to mind the beautiful group in the Tribune at Uffizi [e.g., Uffizi Wrestlers]. The games are carried on under the direction of a Bash-Pehlewan [chief hero], and the final victor receives from the Bey a reward of two thousand piastres [kuruş]. Lives are occasionally lost in these amusements.

From Six Years Residence in Algiers by Mrs. (Elizabeth) Broughton, London: Saunders and Otley, 1839, pp. 18-19

12th December. – Mr. B. went at day-light to the palace to see some oiled Moors wrestle, and break their thirty days fast. The Ramadahn being ended, the Dey received the consuls in a gallery overlooking the court, in the centre of which was a heap of sand surmounted by a small red flag. At a certain signal given by the Dey, and amidst the most discordant jar of drums, fifes, and cymbals, the above named shining personages rushed forward, and scattered and spread the sand over the pavement. They then exhibited their prowess in wrestling, and the Dey conferred a purse of gold upon the winner, whilst coins of lesser value were thrown amongst his less successful competitors. The scramble was farther continued by cold viands being distributed, and seized by them in the same unceremonious manner, to the apparently no small entertainment of the sovereign and his couriers.

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