When the Turkish people poured
westwards from their Central Asian homelands in the
11th century, they came on horseback into Anatolia,
the land which the poet Nazym Hikmet described as
‘stretching like a mare’s head into the
Mediterranean’. The horse, which played a central
role in Turkish life in the Central Asian steppes,
was probably first ridden and harnessed to vehicles
in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian
Sea northeast of Anatolia.
||The Turks brought not only
their horses to Anatolia but many related
aspects of their culture, one being the
equestrian sport known as cirit or jereed.
Cirit is a means of improving equestrian
skills, and involves two teams of horsemen,
each armed with a dried date, oak or poplar
stick. These sticks are 70-100 cm in length
and 2-3 cm in diameter, with blunt ends.
They were originally heavier and
thicker, but to reduce the risk of injury players
came to prefer sticks made of poplar wood, which
become lighter when dried. The players ride horses
specially trained for the sport. The teams line up
facing one another on the field, each player at a
distance of about 100 metres from the next. The
person who signals the start of the game is known as
the çavu?, and before the game he introduces each
of the players to the spectators with words of
praise. Meanwhile drums and reed pipes play military
marches and Köro?lu folk airs. At the beginning of
the game it is traditional for the youngest rider to
trot towards the opposing team, and at a distance of
10-15 metres toss his cirit stick at one of the
players. Simultaneously he turns his horse back and
tries to reach the safety of his own side, pursued
by the other player with a stick in his hand.
This process of chasing and
fleeing, while trying to hit an opponent with a
stick, is the essence of the game, which requires
skill and sportsmanship. To hit the horse instead of
the rider, which is regarded as the sign of an
inexperienced player, is against the rules, and the
offender is sent off the field.
referees, who are former cirit players with standing
in the community, count the number of hits and at
the end of the game announce the winning team.
Experienced cirit players rarely miss hitting an
opponent, and are skilled at avoiding hits
themselves by bending low, hanging down from one
side of the horse, and other feats of acrobacy. Part
of the skill lies in training the horses so that
they play a significant role in the outcome of the
game. The formation of the two teams has its
traditional etiquette. Care is taken not to put
players who are on bad terms in opposing teams, and
players who display deliberately hostile behaviour
during a match are blacklisted.
Cirit was particularly widespread
in the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century onwards,
becoming the foremost martial sport. In peace time
it was played to improve the cavalry’s attack and
defence skills, and during campaigns to whip up
their enthusiasm for battle. Some of the sultans are
known to have been cirit players, and early Ottoman
sultans like Yyldyrym Bayezyd (1389-1402) and Çelebi
Mehmed (1413-1421) attached importance to cirit in
the training of their armies. A superior class of
cavalrymen known as cündi was formed from those
skilled at cirit. However, the game was not without
its dangers, and injuries and even death from falls
in the attempt to catch the flying cirit sticks
prompted Mahmud II (1808-1839) to ban the sport
altogether after he dissolved the Janissary Corps.
Although playing cirit resumed before long,
particularly in the provinces, it never recovered
the importance of former times. Today cirit is not
as widespread as it once was, but is still played as
a spectator sport, primarily in Erzurum, but also in
the provinces of Artvin, Kars, Bayburt, Diyarbakyr,
Siirt and Konya.
Folklore societies are also attempting to keep this
traditional sport alive by organising tournaments.