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x0x Traditional Turkish Sports
By Prof. Dr. METIN AND
The most important aspect of traditional Turkish sports is that they
have been widely depicted in colorful illustrations. Some of them,
like jereed, polo and tomak, are team sports.
But there are also individual sports such as wrestling and matrak.
Some, like polo, are played on horseback while others, like jereed and
archery, are not.
CABBAGES VS OKRAS
Horsemanship was the most important of the traditional Turkish sports.
Expert horsemen were called 'cundi'. When his father Sultan Bayezid
was defeated by Tamerlane at Ankara in 1402, Sultan Mehmed I developed
this sport by recruiting horsemen from Merzifon and Amasya, where he
had previously served as governor, and training them as teams. The
team from Merzifon was known as the Cabbages, for which the area was
famous, while the team from Amasya was called the Okras after that
city's most famous vegetable. The idea of teams was preserved from
the 15th to the 19th century, and both teams played jereed matches as
well as putting on exhibitions for the sultans.
The 'cundi' demonstrated extraordinary skill. They could shoot arrows
while standing atop their saddles, or remove their saddles at full
gallop, slinging them round their necks and then back on their horse's
backs again. Or, the horseman would place an orange on his assistant's
head and then shoot it off while riding full speed. Some riders could
stand astraddle two horses galloping side by side, while others could
stand on their heads in the saddle, their legs waving in the air. One
was able to ride standing on one leg and swing his body down below his
horse's neck as it ran. Some used a javelin instead of an arrow. We
can see from 16th century miniatures that some of the sultans even
exhibited these skills: Sultan Mehmed II depicted is shooting arrows
at a golden pumpkin mounted on a pole while riding at a full gallop.
At a festival in 1582, horsemen were challenged with a moving target.
A human statue is held up by an iron band round its waist allowing it
to rotate easily on its axis. In one hand it holds a sack of rocks, in
the other a round shield.
When the horseman hits the pole, the statue turns and the sack of
stones in its hand strikes the rider, who must escape rapidly to dodge
Horse races, held mainly on festival days, were enjoyed by the
sultans, who rewarded the winners.
Archery was another popular and important Turkish sport. After taking
the city, Mehmed the Conqueror allocated a special field for the sport
in Istanbul with a lodge or club for the archers. No trace of the
lodge building remains today on the field, still known as the 'Ok
There were two types of archery. One was target shooting, the target
being known as a 'tabla' or 'puta'. The second was distance shooting,
known as 'kosu'. The distance covered by the arrow was the 'menzil'.
When a record was broken, a stone, also called a 'menzil', was erected
at the spot where the arrow fell. The archers lined up at another
stone called the 'ayak tasi' or 'foot stone'.
Jereed is a very ancient Turkish sport which was played on horseback
between the Cabbages and the Okras as described earlier. Just like
today's sports teams, they wore uniforms of different colors, the
Cabbages green, the Okras red. While horse polo was the more popular,
the game was also played on foot. Players hurled their sticks and
tried to strike their opponent. Sometimes the jereed stick was heaved
with such force that a player was wounded or even killed. Every hit
earned the player a point. The stick was not allowed to touch the
horse, and if it did the player was disqualified.
YESTERDAY'S POLO, ÇEVGAN
This game, played on horseback and known to the Turks since long ago,
originated in Asia and is still played today in India and Central
Asia. During the Crusades it was brought from the East to Europe,
where it became known as polo.
A 'çevgan' is a thick stick curved at one end.
From his moving horse the player tries to strike a ball about 10-15 cm
in diameter, called a 'gûy'. The purpose of the game, whose exact name
is 'gûy u çevgan', is to hit the ball into a goal 5-6 meters wide
marked off by a pair of stones. As one player brings the ball forward
with his stick, his opponent tries to send it in the opposite
Çevgan is no longer played in Turkey today. But a variety of games
played with balls and sticks are still popular with children in rural
areas of Anatolia.
TOMAK, A TEAM SPORT
Tomak is a team sport, similar to jereed but played with a different
sort of stick called a 'tomak'.
Made of oak filled with long strips of braided felt, the tomak, which
resembles a whip, has a long handle and flat striking surface. Tomak
was played mainly among members of the palace while the sultan looked
on as a spectator. Each team had sixty members who tried to strike
their foes on the back with their tomak.
One needed to be extremely agile to dodge the blows.
A similar game called 'tura' is played today with a handkerchief
knotted at one end.
LIKE DANCING: THE GAME OF MATRAK
The game of 'matrak' is played between two players who move with
graceful steps rather like dancing.
It is similar to the modern game of fencing but instead of a sword and
shield the player holds a wooden stick in his right hand and a round
pillow in his left.
It is believed to have originated in Europe as an ancient form of
dance. A game of matrak is depicted in a miniature dating from a
festival held in 1582. Another miniature in the same manuscript shows
a game played with a real sword and wounded players collapsing to the
ground. Another variety of matrak is played using two swords and no
These were of course not the only traditional Turkish sports, each of
which is rich subject worthy of an article in its own right. Wrestling
and hunting, for example, were also popular with the Turks. Wrestling
survives, and Turkish wrestlers have earned world fame over the
centuries, winning frequent gold medals in international competitions.
The traditional greased wrestling contests held annually at Kirkpinar
awaken interest not just in Turkey but throughout the world. Hunting
was the exclusive sport of sultans. Rifle shooting and shinnying up a
greased pole for a silver jug at the top were also popular sports
among Turks of old.