Bullfighting ... Without the Blood
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this might just be the best way to enjoy watching bulls fight.
By Stephen Starr
Around a small arena perched 6,500 feet high in the Kaçkar Mountains, farmers and families have gathered on a hot summer morning. We are high above the town of Artvin in Turkey’s Alpine-like northeast, where 107 bulls have been hauled from valleys around the Black Sea region to fight each other. The bulls are matched by weight, and once inside the ring, a pair goes head to raging head.
This is Kafkasör, a little-known bullfighting festival that takes place every summer. Now in its 38th year, the festival was established after local stockmen repeatedly found their bulls injured after fighting each other on the dangerous slopes and mountain pastures of this scenic region. The farmers decided the bulls’ health would be better served if they were instead gathered to clash in a safe, flat venue; hence, Kafkasör was born. Unlike the gore of Spain’s Pamplona, a spectacle increasingly drawing ire from animal rights groups, Kafkasör fights don’t lead to bloodshed. “Every bull must have its horns blunted before going into the arena,” says an official running sandpaper across the tip of a bull’s horn, before dashing off to weigh the next entrant. “That’s what I’m doing here.”
Combat ends when one bull decides it has had enough, turns and runs.
Though most fights are over in seconds, some can last for more than an hour. Ezel, a 7-year-old, 800-pound bull and reigning champion in his class, makes short work of his first opponent, prompting his owner, Şeref Yağ, to skip victoriously across the arena to the delight of the crowd. Combat ends when one bull decides it has had enough, turns and runs, whereupon its handlers and a referee intervene. The final, enthralling fight at last year’s festival ended at 2 a.m. and was watched by an audience of thousands.
Some fights never really get going at all. Take the contest between numbers 77 and 59, which took a romantic turn — to the not insignificant embarrassment of their owners and the audience.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating, though, is the unpredictability. It doesn’t matter whether a bull has a distinguished track record or is much stronger than its opponent — if it drops its guard or tires for a split second, its opponent will seize on the chance and force it to turn and run away.
How it works:
Two handlers and a referee are in close proximity of the bulls at all times during the bout. The arena is large enough that when one bull runs away, he’s able to put enough distance between himself and his vanquisher to allow officials to step between them and keep them apart — that’s a key safety feature. The bulls’ horns all are similarly sized (around 6 inches long), meaning neither competitor holds an advantage.
The majority of the contest involves the two bulls standing a couple of feet apart, sizing one another up as both wait for the other to make a move. During the fight, when one bull realizes he’s lost, he gives up and runs back full pelt.
There’s more to Kafkasör than watching sweating, bellowing bovines. In a grassy corner next to the main bullfighting arena, teenage boys are locked in their own hotly contested wrestling competition. In Artvin town center, the region’s unique fusion of Caucasian and Turkish cultures is illustrated by the bright traditional dresses and dances — imagine a mix of Slavic and Middle Eastern influences — worn and performed by youths at the festival’s opening ceremony. “Festivals such as Kafkasör are extremely important for local people to come together,” says Turan Yuksek, an expert in Turkish rural culture at the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University in Rize. “It allows them to carry these activities from the past to the present.” Evening concerts held in the town center are a nostalgic, familial — if loud — affair.
If there is one downside, however, it’s that Kafkasör has become too popular. A study published in the Turkish journal Ekoloji several years ago found that “the usage density of pitched tents and number of motor vehicles exceeded capacity and caused damage to the festival area.”
Our advice is thus clear: Get there soon, before anything changes.
GO THERE: KAFKASÖR FESTIVAL ARTVIN
- Directions: Fly from Istanbul to Kars (followed by a scenic, 125-mile drive to Artvin), Trabzon (a 150-mile, equally picturesque drive) or to Batumi, across the border in Georgia (a 45-mile drive to Artvin plus border crossing). Minibuses run from the town center to the Kafkasör arena throughout the festival weekend.
- Dates: June 29–July 1, 2018. Entry is free.
- Pro tip: Reserve accommodation weeks in advance as hotels quickly book out for the weekend. Alternatively, rough it with the locals by bringing a tent and camp on the slopes above the arena, surrounded by the bulls, their handlers and their families.
- Stephen Starr Contact Stephen Starr