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The Sinjska Alka

September 25, 2010 by · 1 comment

Klara Barcic

In the very South of Croatia there is a region called Cetinska Krajina, an area along the valley of river Cetina, the most water-rich river in Dalmatia. Of breathtaking beauty and archeologically very important this part of Croatia is today a lure for those tourists who are particularly fond of rafting adventures.

Photo: Kristina73

However, many centuries ago this region was a battlefield where the Turkish army, led by Mehmed-Pasha Čelić, tried to defeat the Croatian combatants and to conquer the town of Sinj. And this is exactly where our story begins.
Events, tournaments and games are often interwoven with legends, popular beliefs and/or stories transmitted from generation to generation. These factors make the events impressive and bestow a breath of fresh air and life on the town.

The Sinjska Alka, a Croatian chivalric tournament which takes place on the first Sunday of August every year in Sinj, has its own story too. On that remote August 15, 1715 a small but courageous number of Croatian defenders together with Venetian mercenaries defeated the Turkish conquerors at Sinj’s town gates. History tells that at the beginning of the battle all hopes of victory were low as the Turkish army was much stronger and better equipped.

But astonishingly, in the moments of profound desolation, to the great surprise of all suddenly the image of Our Lady appeared on the fortress wall. The Turks were dazzled by the shining apparition. They tried hard to chase the image away with their guns but they finally had to give up. Their bullets were harmless to the holy image. In that peculiar night they didn’t have any other choice but to retreat. Beaming with happiness for the unexpected victory, the Croatian combatants and the whole town of Sinj decided then to run the Alka game every year in thanksgiving for the miracle of granted grace.

Pogodak u sridu, autor AB FOTO, Sinj

Sinjska Gospa, Our Lady of Sinj, is the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary that granted the victory to the local population by sweeping away the Turks for ever and is now hung in the church dedicated to Our Lady of Sinj. The holy image of Mother of God, crowned with gold and silver, is a destination to many pilgrims from all over Croatia on August 15, the feast day of Our Lady of the Assumption. The image is carried in a long procession through the streets of Sinj, which swarms with pilgrims and other visitors.

According to the legend, the Alka was a ring-shaped stirrup stolen from Mehmed-Pasha’s saddle. This stirrup consists of two iron rings linked to three bars, which divide the space between the two rings into three equal parts. During the tournament it is hung on a wire and the tilters, galloping on horseback, are supposed to thrust the middle of the ring (“u sridu”) thirty five millimeters in diameter with a three-meter long lance. The winner is the tilter who scores the highest number of points. The point is called punat. A tilter scores three points if he thrusts the middle of the Alka ring, two points if he thrusts the space above the middle of the Alka ring and one point if he thrusts one of the two side parts.

Photo: Mario Paparela

Photo: Mario Paparela

The Alka game is run on the Alka racecourse, a street in the Southern part of the town of Sinj especially adopted for the chivalrous tournament. Only the tilters who are members of the Chivalrous Alkars’ Association and born in Sinj and/or in the region of Cetinska krajina, can take part in the Alka game. They wear the original chivalrous costumes of the combatants of Sinj at the beginning of the 18th century and their horses are richly adorned as well.

The Alkar knights (tilters) run three times, but the duration of the game is not easily predictable. They have to run across the racecourse within seconds and then thrust the Alka ring. After two runs the points are summed up and those who have scored low might be excluded from the third round. When there are two tilters with equal points, then they are ready for the “pripetavanje”, a competition between two potential winners. The “pripetavanje” might take some time before destiny decides who is the best. The winner is not actually called the winner (in Croatian “pobjednik”) but “slavodobitnik”, a triumpher, someone who is rewarded with glory and victory.

Photo: Mario Paparela

Photo: Mario Paparela

All great events require a lot of work. The first trials for the Alka game take place four months before the tournament to train and prepare the tilters: they learn how to ride and handle the horses well, and the horses themselves are trained for their movements and performance during the Alka game. Day by day the trials become more and more intensive and more demanding, until at last, fifteen days before the exciting tournament, the tilters run trials on the racecourse.

The penultimate trial before the Alka game is called the Bara and the Čoja is the last trial. The winners of these two tournaments receive bronze and silver Alka rings respectively and they traditionally carry through the streets of Sinj two meters of green cloth for the Bara trial and three meters of fine red cloth representing the Čoja trial.

Photo: Mario Paparela

Photo: Mario Paparela

During the days that precede the Alka game, ongoing preparations in town give it a very festive mood with waving standards, scented flowers and colorful carpets. The local people are usually busy with the final arrangements for the tournament, while tourists stroll and enjoy many cultural, artistic and sport events.

One needs to point out that the tournament is not just a matter of the tilters, but it is a collective matter, as in a way, the whole town participates in the tournament. Everybody contributes not only with hard work but with heart and soul, as the Alka game is in the veins of all the people of Sinj. Streams of joy, enthusiasm, positive energy and hidden hopes bubble at every dawn and sunset of each day.

Slavodobitnik, autor FOTO MARINO, Sinj

Early in the morning the firing of mortars (“mačkule”) from the fortress will announce that the long awaited Alka day has finally arrived. At 1:00 pm they break their silence again, calling people for the final arrangements. The tournament itself starts with a festive parade led by harambaša (a brigand captain).

Behind the harambaša a troop of young Alkar men, the Alkars’ assistants, dressed in the festive traditional costumes of the people from Cetinska Krajina, who walk and help the Alkars with their horses and lances. The Alkar knights (tilters), who will compete in the Alka game, ride behind the vojvoda (the Alkars’ duke). At the end of the parade there is the Edek, a horse covered with a special cloth, which symbolizes the Turkish defeat at Sinj.

AlajЇНauїб, autor AB FOTO, Sinj

In the stand the high-ranking state officials, the archbishop of Split, friars and representatives of the town of Sinj sit side by side. They are greeted by the Alkars’ duke (vojvoda). Alajčauš, one of the Alkar knights who coordinates the game, is the last one to run the Alka game and wears a black uniform. The vojvoda’s adjutant informs the spectators of the results, the number of points and at the end of the tournament he is given the honor of announcing the triumpher’s name.

It is a very touching and emotional moment when the triumpher approaches the stand on his horse, his assistant uplifts the triumpher’s lance and the vojvoda ties to the lance a tricolored flag called “plamenac”, the symbol of the victory. The triumpher is then given a golden ring with the Croatian coat of arms and a sabre by the President of Croatia, whereas his assistant is given a silver ring with the Croatian coat of arms and a yataghan.

From that moment on the triumpher becomes a sort of national hero and is celebrated whole year round until the next Alka game. His name is written for ever in the history of Sinj and his glories echo for centuries in the tempests of time.

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