A week later, because I like to give things a chance to settle down, and my report for Turkey’s first international HEMA event is here.
Hematolia 2019 ended a week ago – two full days of HEMA in one of the biggest cities in the world.
It was an event with issues, but also an event with heart…
Istanbul. We made plenty of jokes about conquering Constantinople on our way there. It’s a bad Bulgarian humour thing.
As luck would have it, just 2 months ago two guys from Turkey visited our school. One of them was Burak Yarar, the main organizer of Hematolia, and he seems to have seen something in my instructor Miroslav because two days later, he invited him to teach at the event.
So School of Historical Swordsmanship “Motus” sent a mini-delegation – 5 people, including one instructor, two assistants, one senior student and a beginner on the road to the city that was once the far-away capital of the Empire we were a part of.
Istanbul is made grandiose by its people – and not just by their sheer quantity. Although they do make moving around hard, Turkish people are also nice, welcoming and very hospitable – and not just our HEMA mates.
I won’t lie to you – seeing the face of Erdogan everywhere, as well as a ton of Turkish flags, was weird. But most people in Istanbul seem to be from a different universe than the Turkey we think of when we talk about the would-be dictator.
They cook as good as Italians, definitely better than the English, and they drive better than all of them combined. Which in Istanbul really helps. The city is brimming with life, it’s next to the sea, it’s big. We mostly saw Kadiköy, the oldest part of it, and what we want is another trip to properly savour it. This time, HEMA came first.
Hematolia 2019 was organized by 5 Turkish HEMA clubs, and though they did all take part and help, it was two guys who took the heavy loads – Burak Yarar and Efe Tuncay.
Their school – Istanbul Tarihi – is one of the biggest in the biggest city, so that may come with the territory, so to speak. I am not criticising the other clubs, but Burak and Efe should’ve gotten more help.
They are both great guys, and Burak was really the perfect leading host for all of us throughout the weekend. He took care of people, gear, logistics, he ran like crazy and I am pretty sure he didn’t sleep that week.
Efe had a not so different role, as it often happens with such management teams, and he dealt with issues both small and large.
The Turks I met exuded a sense of pride all weekend – they were happy that they had HEMAists from other countries showing up and seeing their community. That helped us feel both welcome and at home, on a strange level.
Since most people probably don’t know, I’ll add some historical detail – Bulgarians and Turks have a bit of a bad history together, you know, with us being under their rule for 5+ centuries and being unequal to Turks in the Ottoman Empire. And while for me as a historian and rational human being that doesn’t mean anything for our relations nowadays, I was worried that some ingrained belligerence from childhood (yeah, they taught us in school that the Ottomans enslaved us) might show up involuntarily. I am glad to say nothing like that happened. We simply made more HEMA friends from the Balkans.
Aaaand we are getting near the mess.
The Hematolia crew had a very ambitious weekend prepared – 5 tournaments and 8 workshops by 4 instructors from abroad. It was their first time organizing something like this, so you can guess that not everything went well.
The plan was to have all of the main tournaments on Saturday – rapier and dagger, saber, longsword and the special triathlon, and then start Sunday with a synthetic tourney for beginners and continue on with the workshops.
Things didn’t go as planned. In fact, pretty much every piece took longer than expected, which led to an easily predictable mess at the end of the first day.
Consequentially, some tourneys were rushed, some workshops were scrapped, others were done 4 at a time, and a whole lot of waiting and nerves hit us all.
Things like that happen. And to some extent, changes in the schedule will happen any time someone runs an event for the first time. However, some of the mistakes were easily avoidable with more planning.
To be fair, luck also wasn’t on their side – the original location was lost just days before the event, and it was held in two others. They were certainly good enough, and the Hematolia team dealt with heart and passion with every mess.
But let me tell you a bit more about it…
Three classic tournaments were held – in rapier and dagger, saber, and longsword. I competed in the first and last, and judged the second, from one pool to the finals as a side judge.
The additional synthetics tourney was small (9 fighters), went quickly and it seemed like fun. Both sabers and longswords were changed every round in a system I didn’t have the energy to pay attention too, as it was on Sunday morning. But it was an okay tournament – with some good and some bad fencing and judging.
Rapier and dagger went well, and we were lucky that internationally known rapier instructors George Zacharopoulos and Ton Puey were there to judge and organize. The ruleset was nothing special, aside from torso cuts not counting with rapier. Which in my opinion is a good call.
Saber also went by quickly and cleanly, thanks mainly to the fighters, who fenced quite well and less messily than with the other weapons.
As always, it was the longsword which turned into the biggest mess.
The Longsword tourney
I said that days before the event, and as much as I don’t want to embarrass my friends, I will repeat it – it’s not okay to not have even equipment requirements ready a week before the event. Nor the ruleset either, but that was fine to some degree. The ruleset that was sent was pretty much scrapped and a new one was presented on Saturday morning.
Now, I say rulesets don’t matter for how I fence, and I mean it. Aside from safety rules, of course. And the Hematolia team did well by consulting with the guest instructors, who had more than a century of combined experience in martial arts. But these were part of the things that should’ve been thought out way beforehand.
The ruleset itself wasn’t that much of a problem. Afterblow was substracted, there was no afterblow after a head hit, and grappling was limited to arm and sword control. Every fight was 5 exchanges, doubles took out two instead of one exchange. The organization of the pools was the first and key time-eater. I think the team put up the longsword pools 3 times and pulled them down moments later, while we all waited… And waited… And waited. They were doing them by hand.
Why, when there are so many apps and other software options easily available, I don’t know. I know they had some surprises with additional fighters competing, but that’s exactly when you need some digital help.
The end result was a mess – I had, for example, 3 fights in a row in the pools. Many people had 2 in a row, which is fine, but 3 is a bit too many (and after them I had a one match break before the next one).
There were obvious problems with the judging, as it often happens in longsword. It’s always the biggest tournament, and naturally that means good fencers (which are usually okay judges) take part, while newbies and casual fencers, who are poor judges, step in to help judge.
On the other end of the spectrum were small things, which still took time – for example the judges didn’t think that there was anyone else who should untie the blue and red ribbons from the fighters, which led to many fighters moving off the ring with them after their fights, wasting half a minute. But half a minute in 60 fights is 30 minutes.
There was one clear problem with the judging besides them simply not seeing what was happening – many judged very weak blows as valid strikes and there seemed to be a lack of clarity about hit quality.
I should mention that Zacharopoulos and Puey of course didn’t judge longsword. Where Miroslav and Tom Outwin judged, things were a bit better. But for some reason Outwin, despite his significant experience, was one of three side judges in pool C, while a much less capable guy was head judge. He threw out numerous correct calls by Outwin before my eyes, exchanges that were quite clear.
I tried helping as much as I could, but as I was fighting in the tournament, that wasn’t much at all.
Judges also had a tendency to check other, more experienced guys for their calls and then changed their calls accordingly. Naturally, some of that was due to exhaustion – the fights continued after 9 pm, and by the end, one judge was mistaking the red and blue flags.
The second day and the triathlon tournament
Perhaps the best idea of the Hematolia team came the next day. The synthetic tournament was short and small, and went relatively fast, although it did also lose more time than expected.
After it came the triathlon, which was a special tourney with 6 people, chosen from all the categories from the previous day. The jury and judge were the 4 guest-instructors. I had the pleasure to be chosen, along with Yusuf Sidar Sahin, Burak Urgacionoglu, Maria Davydova, Jerzy Miklaszewski and Deniz Ince. We were divided into two pools, and had to fight 3 rounds with 2 people with each different weapon – rapier & dagger, saber, longsword.
Each round was 1 minute of non-stop fighting, with the referee only separating us if we got into a grapple or started throwing too many blows in distance with no restarting of the exchange at all. It went surprisingly well. We were told we would be judged not merely on points, but on sensible actions, historical techniques, fencing safely and being aware of the fight at all times.
The format doesn’t work for everything, but it did produce nice and careful fencing from all people. I did not do that well in rapier and dagger against Deniz, because my mindset was different just after the longsword final, and I started trying things with rapier and dagger that were more on the level of experimentation than serious fencing. I managed to do better with saber and longsword, but against Yusuf in saber I got a strong blow to the groin. As it wasn’t serious and obviously unintentional (Yusuf is a sweetheart), I made no mention of it, but it almost brought me down and I was crappy at the end of the round. Again I did best in longsword, which is good. Dennis went on to win our pool, and then win again against Burak in the final, finally getting his hands on the handmade Mameluke kilic the Turks had prepared as a prize.
Practically everyone fenced better than in the other tournaments, probably excluding me with r&d. Maria, who used all sorts of dangerous or useless tricks in longsword, abandoned them and showed much better fencing. Even her saber rounds were better, and she had already won silver by that point.
Overall, I received gold in longsword and silver in rapier & dagger. I was much happier with my fighting in r&d, as I have never actually done any (I trained a bit with a rapier and a stick the week before). I won (in the pools) and lost (in the final) against a good Russian fighter – Vadim Kravchenko – who I also might meet in s&b in Minsk. Longsword was a mess; I was angry, tired, with a headache (not from drinking)…
But I did have the pleasure to receive the gold from my instructor, who started teaching me longsword almost a decade ago. That was a moment.
And naturally, the triathlon also ran late… Which meant two workshops were cut – one of them my instructor’s – and the last 4 were packed together in one slot. Oh, and each slot was 1 hour, not 1,5 h.
In the end, Jerzy Miklaszewski taught plenty of saber, including a cool seminar on more weird saber cuts, George Zacharopoulos showed Italian rapier and a workshop on the details of the Zwerchau, Ton Puey – Destreza. Tom Outwin taught some Fiore – I am not sure if his second class ran, but his Fiore one was good, according to Nikola. I assisted Miroslav in his very hurried class on basic cuts from a wide distance with one-handed swords.
I only just managed to steal some fencing time with Efe before it was time to assist Miro, then pack our things and go. I really wanted to check out Ton again, who also did a seminar on Destreza rapier and dagger, but…
It might seem for a moment that this review is going to a negative place. True, the organizers made a lot of mistakes, but…. They did an amazing amount of things right. The food was there, and thank god for the lack of fatty meat, as Turkish barbeque is awesome, but also good for when you are going to be fighting all day long.
We had very fun after-parties both days. Of course, the Saturday one was short and more thoughtful, with less drinking. Sunday was an epic night, full of fun, jokes, generally awesome socialization, me taking a cold shower because of Efe, plenty of food again, and a shit-ton of Slav squat selfies.
If you are wondering, I did relate all of my critiques to Efe and Burak, and I was quite a bit more brutal. Not because I like to hate, but because I love those guys and what they are doing with HEMA in their country so much, and I was really frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t help them as much as I wanted. While they were right in saying it wasn’t my job, I was incited by their spirit.
They took the criticism well, meaning they were thanking me and not killing me and throwing me into the Mediterranean. Small wins.
Jokes aside, the Hematolia team did a great job as hosts, as much as they failed in time management in the tourneys. They were always ready to talk to us, help us find a place when our AirBnB didn’t pan out on the right side of town (we were in the Asian part, the guy saved us a house by mistake in the European part, and travel by car is 45+ min). They were helpful with the luggage, they were extremely respectful and helpful to their guest instructors, and all their guests overall. Over 70 people were at the event, most from Turkey, but also fighters and guests from Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Spain and Poland.
Back home, a week later
It is a week later, and I can look at things from a more distant perspective. I was angry at one point, especially after I witnessed many fighters lose points in completely misunderstood exchanges. Having had that happen to me, and combined with all the other mistakes, this turned into a headache.
Now the headache is gone, and as much as those guys deserve to be criticized for these problems, they nevertheless succeeded with everything else. To the point that I mostly remember the good stuff and thank god I have notes on the bad things, because they are not staying with me – except as lessons.
I know what a toll it took on Burak, Efe, and everyone on the Hematolia organizing committee, and they did do a good job. Thank you for everything, guys!
If there is an event again in Istanbul in 2020, it is going to be on my calendar.