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New Europe

Day Forty-one: Selçuk

Camel wrestling in Selçuk 
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Barbecues and balloons as the Selçuk crowd settles in for a day's camel wrestling.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAt the entrance to a natural amphitheatre formed in the lee of a hill beside the deep blue Aegean Sea there hangs the splendid sign, '25th Selçuk-Ephesus Camel-Wrestling Festival'. The names alone are epic, Selçuk being the home of the first Turkic tribe to test the Byzantine hegemony and Ephesus once designated capital of Asia by the Romans.

It's a fine day with clear skies and smoke is drifting from barbecues already cooking sausages and kebabs for the expected 20,000 camel-wrestling fans.
On the curving slope hundreds, if not thousands, of white plastic chairs and tables are laid out and on top of the hill is a steel frame to which has been lashed a huge likeness of Atatürk, looking dapper, as he always did, in an astrakhan hat.

The fact that this event is set out in the open, rather than in a specially built stadium, makes it a very folksy, traditional affair, part county fair, part point-to-point. This is essentially a country sport, a celebration of the camel and all it represents in Turkish culture - the nomadic life and the camel trains that brought goods and prosperity along the Silk Road. No matter that there are hardly any working camels left in Turkey, no matter that those who will be wrestling here today are the pampered pets of those that can afford to keep them, no matter they're more like racehorses than beasts of burden, there is something reassuring about the camels. Something that inspires deep affection. Camels are a good thing.

Having said that, this is clearly a boy's thing. The spectators filling these slopes have the air of men who've got away from shopping, or visiting the mother-in-law, for a day. They're doing what Turkish blokes seem to enjoy doing, lighting fires in their portable braziers, grilling a few sausages, opening jerrycans of raki and smoking like chimneys.

I'm here with Yusuf Yavas, a local archaeologist. From the top of the hill we can see, in no particular order, a coach park, filling rapidly, a big bland estate of holiday homes and a canal built in the sixth century BC to connect Ephesus with the sea. We're sitting on top of twenty-seven centuries of continuous human occupation.

'More Roman sites than Italy, more Greek sites than Greece' is how Yusuf describes this stretch of the Aegean coast, adding regretfully that his government doesn't attach a high priority to the work of himself and his colleagues.

He's fifty-two. His grandparents were originally Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete and Salonika who were forcibly moved out of their traditional homelands in the exchange of populations which followed fighting between Greece and Turkey after the First World War. Enormous hardships and ignominious loss of property were forced on two million people. Now he wants to see Turkey closer to the rest of Europe, away from the fanatics of right and left. I ask him why he thinks some Europeans are dragging their feet over Turkish admission. He puts it down to fears over religion and unemployment.

'Turkey is ninety-eight per cent Islamic country. Also unemployment rates in Turkey are quite high, I think European people think, OK, all the Turks will come to Europe and take our jobs.'

For a moment his mild manner slips.

'I think European people are not informed very well. They have an image in their heads of an Arabic country. Turkey is not Arabic. It's a secular country. We have democracy for about eighty years. They should learn more about Turkey.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty-one: Selçuk
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Selçuk
  • Book page no: 103

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