Sport in Turkey in the Pre-Islamic Period

This paper is a descriptive historical analysis of sport in Turkey from the earliest available records to the present. The development of sport in Turkey may be thought of as occurring in three periods: the pre-Islamic, the Islamic, and post-Islamic Republican periods. Evidence from the pre-Islamic period suggests that Turkey’s athletic culture was immensely rich, with games and related physical activities having an essential role and in many respects providing a way of life. In an environment in which the strongest and fittest were likeliest to survive, martial forms of games and physical activities were widely practiced by men and women, for instance archery, horsemanship, wrestling, and cirit (a javelin chase also known as jerid or jereed). In the relatively relaxed social climate of the pre-Islamic period, Turkish people were free to pursue these activities and express themselves through athletic culture.

Sport in Turkey in the Pre-Islamic Period

Athletic culture in Turkey during the pre-Islamic period involved at least three main outlets for physical competition: archery, cirit, and wrestling. Ample evidence exists that archery was among the most common sports in the pre-Islamic Turkish culture, practiced and performed by rich and poor alike. Survival, after all, depended heavily on skilled marksmanship. Marksmanship also made for ready entertainment, and the best archers were honored and rewarded. According to Celebi (1987), Turks were like other Central Asian peoples in their use of  short bows rather than the Western Europeans’ favored longbow. Lewis (1971) attributes the difference to the fact that, while Europe’s medieval archers traveled on foot, the Turks formed light cavalries, which, being on horseback, would have found the longbow unwieldy (p. 203). Turks’ bows and arrows were made of metal, bone, or wood; the material reflected the archer’s status in society (Celebi, 1987). Technical perfection was expected in making both arrow and bow, and the weapons were subjected to thorough testing before use (Celebi, 1987). Arrows were invested with certain symbolic powers in addition to their use as weapons. For example, a young Turkish man about to marry would shoot up an arrow to learn where his marriage tent should be placed (i.e., at the point where the arrow returned to earth) (Lewis, 1978).

Women in pre-Islamic Turkish culture enjoyed extensive freedoms; they did not “sit quietly in their tents all the time” (Adivar, 1930). Shoulder to shoulder with men, they hunted and fought. And they competed with men in archery contests. The pre-Islamic Turkish epic Book of Dede Korkut (translated by Geoffrey Lewis) recounts how Lady Burla, a Khakan’s wife, helped rescue her son from an enemy by using arrow and sword herself to dispatch the threat (Lewis, 1978). The pages of the Dede Korkut also make clear the popularity of wrestling among pre-Islamic Turks. Athletes and others approached the sport with respect; it was honored by heroes and heroines and it figured in many aspects of life (see the offset quotation from Dede Korkut, below, describing the prenuptial wrestling match between Prince Beyrek and his intended’s housekeeper). Finally, the sport of cirit (or jerid or jereed), a horseback javelin chase, was very popular among the nomadic Turks. Their diet consisting largely of game, they were dependent on hunting. The cirit javelin, made of wood or metal, was designed to kill large animals; during war it could also be used for close fighting. To use the javelin well required a strong arm and a practiced skill (Celebi, 1987). Using it in a game was very dangerous, involving speeding horses and attempts both to hit an opponent with the javelin and catch thrown javelins. Cirit was one of the culture’s most dangerous pursuits, and it was not uncommon for players to die on the field.

Turkish sport during the Islamic period was influenced significantly by the cultural habits and moral codes of Islam practiced in the Middle East (Arabia and Persia). These allowed only men to pursue certain athletic leisure activities, and in general in this period, athletic pursuits–sports–became a privilege of the rich and politically powerful. Again, archery, riding, wrestling, and cirit were the most popular events. It is during this period that athletics began to be institutionalized; a few primitive sports clubs became established. In the 19th century, European diplomats were largely responsible for introducing modern competitive sports to Turkey. The progress of sport in Turkey in the modern era has been problematic, influenced by national political, economic, and social challenges. This is, however, typical of developing countries. There has been very little scholarly research aimed at identifying problems in the development of sports in Turkey. Minimal data about lifelong physical fitness for the masses (i.e., “sport for all” programs) has been established. This article will focus on understanding whether Middle Eastern culture has worked to impede the development of Turkish sports culture by, for example, preventing Turkish women from participating in the activities of athletics and sports.

For thousands of years, games and various types of athletic activities have been significant in the lives of the Turkish people (a people originating in Central Asia). In ancient times Turkish boys were not granted their public names until they had distinguished themselves in athletics. Indeed, during the pre-Islamic era, certain athletic activities were considered expressions of the Turkish religion, art, or love. In the oldest inscriptions on Turkish monuments in Outer Mongolia and Siberia (dating to roughly the eighth century B.C.), athletic skills are described as “first-rate” (Lewis, 1978); the gender of the athlete matters not. Exemplifying Turkey’s continuous tradition of sports, the annual Kirkpinar wrestling tournament in Edirne is 650 years old, predating tennis at Wimbledon by approximately 500 years. Turkish wrestlers’ many successes in the modern Olympic Games (until the 1968 Mexico City Games) were no coincidence, but were instead the extension of Turkey’s history and culture. Another example of centuries-old Turkish sporting tradition are the cirit festivals in Erzurum.

A number of literary works suggest the rich heritage of sports in Turkey. The Book of Dede Korkut, for instance, tells a story giving insight into the role of athletics in Turkish cultural background. The story concerns a Turkish girl who is a housekeeper for a popular Turkish princess, Chichek. A prince attracted to the princess must contend with the princess’s housekeeper to win an opportunity to meet the princess. The housekeeper presents him a challenge, as Lewis (1987) translates it:

Where are you from, young man? From the inner Oghuz, said Beyrek (the prince) . . . . I am he they call Bamsi Beyrek, son of Prince Bay Bure. And what is your business here? I am told, replied Beyrek, that Prince Bay Bican has a daughter, and I have come to see her. The lady Chichek is not the sort of person to show herself to you, said she, but I am her serving-woman. Come let us ride out together. We shall shoot our bows and race our horses and wrestle. If you beat me in these three, you will beat her, too. To horse! They both mounted and rode out. They spurred their horses and Beyrek’s horse passed the girl’s. They shot their bows and Beyrek’s arrow split the girl’s arrow. She said, well, young man, nobody has ever passed my horse or split my arrow. Come now, let us wrestle. At once they dismounted and grappled; they stood as wrestlers do and grasped each other. Beyrek picked the girl up and tried to throw her, and then she picked him up and tried to throw him. Beyrek was astonished and said, If I am beaten, I will be humiliated . . . . He made a supreme effort, grappled with the girl and seized her breast  . . . and threw her on her back.

The story illustrates how much a part of the lives of Turkish people athletics have been. And yet, despite centuries of pursuit of a range of games and athletic pastimes, the sporting legacy of this society has remained basically unwritten. Kurthan Fisek attempted to make up the omission in his 1962 book in Turkish, Devlet Politikas Ve Toplumsal Yapyla IIiskileri Acsndan Spor Yonetimi: Dunyada-Turkiye’de [The Administration of Sport in Turkey and in the World]. Fisek’s work provides an overview and historical analysis of the development and institutionalization of sports organizations and their management, both in Turkey and worldwide. It is the first and only academic book on Turkish sporting culture. While much is written about sports in Turkey, aside from Fisek’s canonical text, most of it emanates from sports journalism, and most of that is essentially pabulum, consisting of scores and attributions by athletes and coaches relating to individual or team achievements and quests for championships. Fisek’s book emphasizes mainly the emergence of sport and its transition from an individual level to the organized, institutional level.

When reading outside of Fisek, readers on sports tend to be fed a diet of traditional slogans, clichés, and ritualized trivia. Most texts on Turkish sports do not acquaint readers with, or encourage awareness of, larger social issues or the consequences of modern and indigenous sport forms: the ideological underpinnings, power relations, and social, economic, and cultural costs they entail. Many pertinent aspects remain ill-defined, if they are mentioned at all. An unsophisticated, escapist attitude tends to control sports; substantive studies in sport have been very much neglected in Turkey, only recently attracting the interest of a few researchers. It is a neglect that diminishes the traditionally rich sport culture of Turkish society. Study of the culturally significant roles the Turkish people ascribe to athletic activities helps document the nation’s values, spirit, and mentalities, in addition to its times, just as do studies of other cultural enterprises. Turkish academics have yet to adequately examine the significance of various cultural constructs regarding the body as a functioning organism and its influence on personality or character. Too little scrutiny has been focused on the human body’s capacity to serve as an icon communicating present and past social customs and social roles.

On the other hand, too much attention is paid to journalistic evaluations of medal counts in competitive sports, notably the Olympics and world championships. Until recently, journalists have generally reported only the failures and weaknesses of Turkish sports. Turkish wrestling, which led the world until the 1968 Olympic Games, and Turkish soccer, which has rarely been competitive with Europe, are especially criticized. The outcomes of competitions may be newsworthy, but basic inquiry into why these particular outcomes is rarely made. Hence, the traditionally important indigenous games and athletic activities (cirit, archery, wrestling) and their role in the historical development of Turkey have rarely been investigated.

As in nearly all the other developing countries, sports in Turkey in its institutionalized form is not maintaining itself competitively. Despite having a strong sport background, Turkey is ineffective, compared to advanced, primarily Western countries, in international competition, especially in the Olympic Games and world championships. In these arenas, advanced technology and science play a crucial role. As a distance runner for the Turkish national team, I have personally experienced the reality of Turkey’s technological handicap. In major international races I competed in between 1975 and 1982, my Western opponents wore technologically superior running shoes, while I ran in flat-soled shoes. I could afford neither the shoes nor the spikes that were attached to them.

Several factors are negative influences on the advancement of sports in developing nations like Turkey. A number of authors (William Baker, John Andrews, Donald Calhoun, Don Anthony) have linked the problems of third world sports directly to poverty. In order to understand the system of sports within a given society, it is essential to examine predisposing elements and how they interact with the development of sports. Whatever pattern of development exists in a nation, it is important to point out that the system of sports is a product of the society. However, it is highly conceivable that certain factors within a given country might have more influence on the system of sports than others at any given time. For instance, although Turkey has never been colonized, its problems can resemble those of formerly colonized developing countries.

Finally, on a global scale, problems in sports grow from various historical, cultural, religious, political, socioeconomic, and ecological issues that cannot be considered mutually exclusive but must be evaluated as they relate to one another. Sports discussed in Turkey today are those in which Turkish athletes compete internationally and those that are played professionally, such as soccer and basketball. Traditionally important indigenous activities like cirit, archery, wrestling, and polo have rarely been researched or included in journalists’ reports. It is the purpose of this article, therefore, to articulate sports’ development in Turkish society and to identify problems in sports affecting its development over time. It is also the purpose of this study to elaborate on what sports means in Turkey, identifying some of the structures formed by the society for the carrying out of competitive sports and athletic culture. Finally, some of contemporary Turkey’s major problems in the realm of sports will be examined.

Games and other forms of athletic culture have been pastimes of Turks for thousands of years. From a handful of written materials we have learned that the early Turks celebrated success–whether of the hunt, the fight, or pertaining to religion–by dancing and convening games and other physical contests. Ancient inscriptions in Outer Mongolia and Siberia allude to the Turks’ pre-Islamic-era organized religious festivals involving dancing, games, and tests and demonstrations of strength and skill. Religious and civic commemorations and celebrations involving people of every class employed games and athletic activities. For example, weddings, khanship inaugurations, and military victories in the pre-Islamic era were the primary entertainments and were celebrated through sports and athletics (Lewis, 1971). Athletic activity, sports and sportsmanship, were thus related to spiritual beliefs, and they were also part of daily work and customs including the expression of art and love.

Athletic activities are also portrayed in ancient Turkish epics as well as in folk songs and Turkish miniature paintings. The Book of Dede Korkut, for example, with its origins in the period AD 1000-1300, is a famed Turkish epic much given to descriptions of certain games and athletic activities. To the men and women of Turkey this epic ascribes “first-rate” athletic skills, especially in horsemanship, archery, wrestling, polo, and cirit or javelin. These are today considered Turkey’s national sports.

The nomadic Turks of the pre-Islamic period were “patriotic,” brave, practical, and physically active. From the beginning of their history they lived in a world in which wars were virtually constant. This social environment, along with a harsh natural environment, meant that the weak and the old were left to die. As a result, Turks developed athletic skills to help them survive. As in most other ancient societies, athletic activities had military and political dimensions. Several historians have indicated that pre-Islamic Turks were “fit, intrepid hunters, expert horsemen and brave warriors” (Lewis, 1974). Every Turkish man was considered a soldier for life, and a significant amount of attention was paid to military skills. History shows that these characteristics made the Turks far superior, militarily,  to their settled, relatively sedentary neighbors. Quite naturally, then, in the pre-Islamic period martial sports and activities like archery, horsemanship, wrestling, and cirit were more important than other sports. A primary reason for advocating discipline and promoting strength and martial skill was the Khakans’ belief that, for boys, challenging sports and games enhanced not just physical but moral, ethical, and patriotic well-being, as is suggested in the Book of Dede Korkut. Khakans believed that sports instilled courage and loyalty to a boy’s community and to the leader of his nation. As Lewis (1978), explained,

[B]oys were routinely taken for rigorous physical and military training. . . . In about one year in training camps the boys were expert warriors in running, slinging, shooting the bow and throwing [the] javelins . . . and riding . . . After gaining some skill in these activities, the boys were allowed to participate in the hunt, enduring the extremes of heat and cold, to make forced marches day after day, to cross streams without wetting their weapons, to eat very little food, perhaps one meal in two days, to support themselves by foraging, and to stalk and kill the wild animals, such as the lion, the leopard, the wild boar, and the antelope. . . . When not on the hunt the boys continued the regular training in archery, riding, and athletic sports. (pp. 156)

The heroic code ordained that “the boys were not granted their public names until they accomplished something heroically (including athletics)” (Lewis, 1978, p. 156).

Like other nomadic societies (e.g., Tartars, Kazaks, Mongols, Kirghizes), the Turks were “devoted to the cult of horse and were born horsemen” (Celebi, 1987). Gurun (1981) went so far as to credit the Turks with the domestication of the horse. Turkish men indeed could not imagine life without their horses. As the legendary phrase has it, a Turk is born in a hut and dies on horseback on the prairie.  One Turkish soldier left the following message in a cave: “I will die /  If my horse dies / I will survive / If my horse survives” (Celebi,1987).

Turks of the pre-Islamic period saw leisure as an invaluable gift from God to their people. Turks’ fondness for athletic activities and games shaped their culture and made these an important feature of daily life. The ancient Turks of Central Asia recognized play as a primary impulse in both human beings and Tengeri, their sky god. According to their belief, the kainat (universe) was the “play arena of divinity . . . Mother Earth [w]as the play yard of human beings” (And, 1987). Religious forms of dance had an especially revered role in this context. A small, 15th-century Turkish manuscript describes the relationship between the shaman and dance, which involves symbolic explanation of the origins of music and dance. The anonymous author writes that it was during the creation of the world that dance had its spiritual birth, explaining that, “When God created the Universe, divine energy resounded and from that sound arose the tonalities of music, and this gave birth to several forms of dance” (And, 1987). Dance, of course, was accompanied by music, including song. The manuscript’s author goes on to link the movement of the physical body in dance to the spiritual experience of the dance, in such a way that, according to And, “the whole cosmos is a dancing mystery.” A thousand years later, scholars began examining apparent affinities between the shamanistic philosophy reflected in the ancient manuscript and later Islamic mysticism, especially the Sufi dancing recognized as symbolizing the cosmos (And, 1987).

Turkish folk tradition links dancing and lore, and this had an influential role in the development of Turkish athletic culture. To this day, Turkish people entertain and enlighten themselves and others with dances dramatizing their folktales and folk songs. In ancient Turkey, dance was among the most common entertainments, and the men and women who danced were highly skilled performers. Dances performed differed to a degree from region to region. The most popular dances were those that had been influenced by military life. Lewis (1971) calls these dances “mimed battles of fierce exploits, always intense and energetic, with or without weapons, increasing in speed and excitement and often ending with a leap over the flames.” Dancers’ movements might also mimic animal behavior or other natural phenomena. Lewis (1971) observed the following :

The courtship of cranes, birds sacred to the ancient Turks; an eagle approaching its prey; an encounter between a dignified lion and a ferocious hyena; a clownish camel, danced by two men in the animal’s skin. Some of the dances were mimics or imitations of natural features, like flowing water or swaying poplar trees; others mimed daily acts of home and village life, like bread making, weaving or hair washing; these were interspersed with a promenading dance among the audience and always ended with a lively dance of thanksgiving.


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Author Note

Ergun Yurdadon,Department of Recreation Management, United States Sports Academy.

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