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Kel Alico and Samdanci Ibrahim

A strange photo

1883. The great “comeback” to Istanbul

“As soon as the evil presents himself as good, then he becomes deplorable”

Publilius Syrus

From Marseille to Istanbul.

After a long absence spent in America where he was touring, Panagis had finally returned to Europe in 1883. He first arrived to Marseilles on a steamboat, where his appearance was welcomed and cheered by many Greek expatriates. During his short stay in the French city, Coutalianos gave an excellent performance at the “Le’ Palais de Cristal” theatre and demonstrated his skills. He was still young at the time, but his name by then had already become a true legend and was the awe of all wrestlers and weightlifters in the world.

The interior of the theater “Le Palais de Cristal”

At the time, many newspapers described his incredible sporting feats and his arrival in Europe with glowing comments, but his stay in Marseille was short.

He soon boarded one of the steamships running the Marseille-Constantinople route, and after a short stop in Piraeus, he arrived at his destination which was the reigning city of the Ottomans and the old Byzantines. His arrival in the capital of the Ottoman Empire caused a huge wave and was accompanied by various reactions. Panagis’ compatriots, -both those living in independent Greece and the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, – were seized with unbridled enthusiasm. Many Turks as well as Armenians wanted to be entertained by his legendary performance of taming wild animals and elements of nature with his own hands.
Panagis had become the talk of the day and his inevitable competition with other athletes of the Ottoman Empire would soon rekindle national passions and hatred.

The Greek athlete was ready to start his public performances immediately, but the atmosphere was tense, and the episodes did not take long to manifest. In his very first public appearance, the famous Armenian wrestler Simon showed up with some of his fans and challenged Panagis to wrestle with him then and there. The spectators, – divided into factions according to the national community represented by each athlete, – were ready to clash, but the quick police intervention preceded the incidents before they escalated.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere between Armenians, Turks and Greeks in Istanbul was very tense and that is why the authorities took immediate action to prevent trouble.

Wrestling matches in public places became forbidden, but in the meantime the Sultan invited all top wrestlers in his country to come and face Coutalianos.

Yildiz Palace on an old postcard

However, because the issue of the wrestling had begun to impact politics, the Sultan decided that competitions should be held in the courtyard of his residence (at the Yildiz Palace) in front of a limited number of spectators and behind closed doors.
The Sultan’s plan was indeed a clever move. He did not ban the matches which would have been an unpopular move, and at the same time he could keep the reactions under control.
It is easily understood that he would test Panagis by making him fight with the best wrestlers of his Empire and even under conditions completely controlled by him.

If indeed Coutalianos could have proven that he was worthy of his reputation of being an invincible and super strong man, then the information that would leak to the press would have been confusing and thus would create doubts on their credibility.

If Panagis lost even one match, then the people of the palace would make sure that the information was shared with the biggest press agencies in the world. Indeed, the events unfolded exactly as we described them. On one occasion the Sultan’s people found Panagis having dinner with some of his friends in a yacht that was stationary at the port. He was removed from the table and taken to the palace in a carriage. The Sultan asked him to fight at that very moment, but Panagis claimed that he had eaten just a little while ago and for this reason he would prefer to do it the next day. However, the Sultan insisted, because as mentioned before, he deliberately wanted to force the Greek athlete to fight under conditions that would influence his excellent performance.

Panagis had to fight with several wrestlers one after the other, but all his matches still ended up with victory. The press, however, gave a contradictory account on the events. The available Turkish sources mentioned the draws and defeats of Panagis, while the Greek newspapers triumphantly wrote about the Greek athlete’s victory, who defeated all his opponents.

Various newspaper articles at the time stated that Panagis faced the Armenian wrestler Simon, the French Doublier and some other Turkish wrestlers about whom there are no details left except for some common Turkish names and vague information.

For example, that some of them were originally from the lands of present-day Bulgaria. A wrestler Halil is mentioned who is probably the aka “Sultan’s Lion” Abdul Adali Halil. We also find two more wrestlers, a certain Mehmet and a Hasan whom some Greek newspapers present as brothers. We assume that they were some of Kurtdeleri Mehmet, Katranci Mehmet and Nurullah Hasan.

Since all of these were indeed great athletes and had won the favour of the Sultan, it seems very unlikely that they did not confront Coutalianos when all of them were in Constantinople at the same time. The fact that some Greek journalists thought that the wrestlers Mehmet and Hasan were brothers was probably due to confusion caused by the fact that these Turkish wrestlers were almost always photographed together. Let us not forget, that we are referring to a time when obtaining information was not at all easy.

The French wrestler Doublier

We learn, for example, that some of them were Turks originally from the lands of present-day Bulgaria. A wrestler Halil is mentioned who is probably the aka “Sultan’s Lion” Abdul Adali Halil. We also find two more wrestlers, a certain Mehmet and a Hasan whom some Greek newspapers present as brothers. We assume that they were some of Kurtdeleri Mehmet, Katranci Mehmet and Nurullah Hasan.

Publication referring to the wrestler Adali Halil
Poster advertising the fight of the famous Turkish wrestlers Adali vs Kurtdereli

In some of our future articles we might publish more conclusions about the identity of the Turkish athletes that Coutalianos encountered during his stay in Constantinople.

In this article, however, the focus is on the case of one particular wrestler who – according to some Greek newspapers – was also an officer in the Turkish army. Two of the sources, which published the same information with minor differences, are Marmarina Nea (March 1952) and Athletiki Echo (8/6/1951). They mention that Panagis was challenged by a wrestler, the highest officer of the Sultan (binbasis=tribune). The articles claim that Panagis won the match, after which he was immediately called to fight a wrestler of Bulgarian origin called Alico.

Our research revealed that the information provided by the people who in the past tried to record the events was ambiguous. These two persons who are mentioned as opponents of Panagis, were not two after all, but one. The reason, of course, for the wrestler Alico, who was at the same time a military follower of the Sultan, holding the rank of tribune.

By conducting a brief internet search, one can easily find Turkish sources referring to the wrestler Kel Alico, in which it is verified that he was indeed a military official. We also find a photo of him, in which he is not alone, but with another athlete named Samdanci Ibrahim.

In the various reposts of this photo one can see that Alico is honored, while Samdanci Ibrahim is almost never mentioned.
In fact, because at that time the technology of photography was hardly at all widespread, this particular photograph is the only one that survived and presents the Turkish wrestler Kel Alico. Fortunately, this unique picture kept the memory of the great Turkish wrestler alive. The fact that he does not show him alone, of course, is a defect that the Turks often overcome sometimes by cutting the photo in half (fig. 1) and other times by focusing only on Alico’s head (fig. 2).

1) Half photo
2) Alico’s head
3) Whole photo

A certain “unknown” wrestler, whom the Turkish “experts” call Kara Ibo on the one hand and Samdanci Ibrahim on the other, is none other than Coutalianos himself. The Turkish forgers of history, unfold their talent.

Searching for information on the wrestler standing next to Alico, namely Samdanci Ibrahim, we found absolutely nothing.

The question is, why did Kel Alico agree to be photographed with an unknown Turkish wrestler. Nothing that corresponding photographs from the same era show top-class Turkish wrestlers in similar poses, it seems absurd that the great wrestler Alico allowed himself to be photographed with a completely unknown wrestler who had no distinction at all.

But what answer could we give to these questions, when more than a 100 years had passed since the photographer captured this particular snapshot?

It’s not what it seems….

The puzzle is old and seems rather unreadable.

The two athletes who in this particular photo step on the lawn and look ready to fight are not random at all. Kel Alico is already known to us, but on the right of the photo, the one standing is not the unknown wrestler Samdanci Ibrahim, but the famous Panagis Coutalianos, whose identity the Turks tried all these years to hide, either by cropping the photo in middle or by giving the image another name. Not to mention, that the Greek newspapers of the time claimed, that Panagis was the one who defeated Alico and not the other way around.

According to an old Chinese saying, “One picture is worth a thousand words“. However, if the picture is not properly observed, then it might be misleading.

Indicative map of Coutalianos movements during the period 1883
Kostas Michos

Kostas Michos



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