Wednesday, September 24, 2008

İstanbul’s Athletic Heritage

İstanbul’s athletic heritage

Before Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's political and social reforms and the rise of amateur sports in Turkey, athletics in İstanbul went hand-in-hand with military training.
Archery, wrestling and equestrian games, not to mention gladiator contests, sharpened skills required for battle. Covering two millennia, İstanbul's sports history is closely linked not only with the arts of war but also with politics and the choices rulers make about urban design.
Before the official adoption of Christianity, gladiator contests attracted crowds of spectators both in Byzantium and throughout the Roman Empire. In A.D. 326, Constantine banned gladiator contests, which usually resulted in the death of one of the combatants, and chariot races became the most popular spectator sport for Constantinople's elite and masses alike. Other sports allowed by the church included boxing, wrestling and track and field (running, jumping and disc throwing). Equestrian sports like polo, imported from Persia, and European-style chivalric jousting were also popular in Byzantine times, as was hunting.
Situated between the Hagia Sophia and the palace, the Hippodrome was the place where the emperor and the masses converged for sporting events and other public ceremonies. It measured 117 x 440 meters and is thought to have held 100,000 people. Construction of the Hippodrome, modeled on the Circus Maximus in Rome, began in A.D. 196, during the reign of Septimus Severus, and was completed during the reign of Constantine I (324-337). In 1261, when the emperor moved to the Blachernae Palace (in present-day Ayvansaray), most sporting activities moved as well, leaving the Hippodrome with only jousting and horse racing.
In 1609 the remains of the Hippodrome were cleared to make room for the Sultanahmet Mosque and all that remains today are three monuments, including the Egyptian obelisk, which adorned the spina in the middle of the race course.
The Ottomans referred to the Hippodrome as "The Horse Field" (At Meydanı) and used it for horse races and jereed (cirit) contests. Jereed is an ancient Turkic sport with origins in Central Asia. Individuals from opposing teams pursue one another in turns, the pursuer throwing a blunt javelin at his opponent. The fact that the game occasionally resulted in death may have influenced Mahmut II's decision to ban the game in 1826, but it continued to be popular in the provinces.
The main sporting facility in Ottoman İstanbul was Okmeydanı, which covered nearly 300 acres on the far side of the Golden Horn. Fatih Sultan Mehmet (1451-1481) designated this land as the city's "archery field" soon after the conquest. Beyazıt II (1481-1512) established a training facility there, Okçular Tekkesi (the archers' "lodge"), where talented archers and their coaches were fed and trained. Coaches and the captain (şeyh) of the archers lived at the lodge. To become a licensed member of this elite society, a bowman had to shoot an arrow at least 594 meters. Wrestling, running and equestrian games like jereed and polo also took place at Okmeydanı.
For 500 years, until the founding of the republic, Okmeydanı was strictly protected. Gecekondus began appearing in the 1950s and Okmeydanı has now become a densely populated neighborhood cut by major highways. It is a difficult place to walk, run or ride a bike and shooting arrows would probably result in police arrest. However, the İstanbul Ansiklopedisi indicates that 55 of an original 132 ok abidesi (stone pillars set up as monuments to the achievements of champion archers) can still be found in various parts of the neighborhood.
While archery training and contests were centered at Okmeydanı, oil wrestlers competed on a number of fields in and around the city. In addition to Okmeydanı, there were wrestling fields near the Theodosian Walls, next to the Süleymaniye Camii, in Kadırga and in Kağıthane. Contests between oil wrestlers also took place at the Topkapı Palace and, in the 19th century, at the Ayazağa summer palace in Maslak.
Oil wrestlers trained in İstanbul's wrestling lodges (pehlivan tekkeleri), of which there were several. The most famous of these, the Demir tekkeleri, were founded during the reign of Fatih Mehmet in the 15th century. In the 19th century the fates of wrestlers began to rise and fall according to the tastes and policies of successive rulers. In 1826, wrestling lodges were closed along with the Bektâşi lodges when Mahmut II disbanded the Janissaries. Mahmut II, however, continued to support some wrestlers and held matches at the palace.
Abdülaziz (1861-1876) included the best wrestlers in his entourage and had promising young athletes sent to the capital for training at a facility in İhlamur. Once Abdülaziz was removed from power, his wrestlers were sent away, some finding opportunities in villages like Maltepe, Beykoz and Dudullu and others traveling farther to earn their keep.
Wrestlers and wrestling returned to İstanbul after Abdülhamit II (1876-1909) was dethroned, and in 1911, a tent was set up in the Talimhane Square in Taksim for wrestling matches that continued throughout the month of Ramadan. Similarly, after declining in prestige and popularity due to the introduction of firearms, archery did not reappear until Atatürk reintroduced the sport in 1937.
Throughout history, sports have been linked with military training. Even today many Turkish men associate running, for example, with their military service. While private fitness centers and voluntary sports associations are on the rise in İstanbul, the city's sports culture still depends heavily on local and national politics, and inadequate urban planning restricts its development.
Note: most of the articles consulted for this piece were written by Cem Atabeyoğlu and appear in İstanbul Ansiklopedisi.
*John Crofoot is a runner and freelance writer in İstanbul.
24 September 2008, Wednesday

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