Halet Çambel – first female Muslim Olympian, pioneering archeologist

This week I stumbled upon a fascinating story of a woman who is remembered for snubbing Hitler, but this turns out to be a short chapter in a rich life story. Halet Çambel was born in 1916 in Berlin, the granddaughter of the Ottoman ambassador to Germany, whose family had close connections to Mustafa Ataturk. She was a frail child, prone to illness, and only took up sport to build up her strength, choosing fencing because she enjoyed German stories about knights.

In the mid-1920s her family resettled in Istanbul where Halet was shocked by the ‘black shrouded women’ she encountered. But the Republic of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Ataturk, was keen to expand opportunities for women, including participation in sport. And so Halet found herself representing Turkey in the women’s individual foil event in the 1936 Olympic Games, the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics. She had reservations about participating in the Nazi Games. When asked to meet Hitler, she refused. But Turkey’s team had been amateurish in their preparations and she didn’t win a medal.

After the Games, Halet found her true calling: she studied Archaeology, as well as the Hittite, Assyrian, and Hebrew languages at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then gained a doctorate at the University of Istanbul in 1940. While studying, she met Nail Çakırhan, a Communist poet. Her family disapproved of Çakırhan’s beliefs, so they married in secret, and remained married for 70 years until his death in 2008. They chose not to have children in order devote their lives to their careers.

After the the Second World War she played a key role in understanding Hittite hieroglyphics and helped decipher the Hittite equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, while still managing to spend part of her time teaching the local children. In 1947 she worked on the excavation of the 8th-century Hittite fortress city of Karatepe in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey, a project to which she devoted the following five decades. She campaigned for environmental causes long before such things were taken seriously. She argued the importance of keeping the objects on the site, overlooking the Ceyhan River. In 1957, the authorities agreed, and Turkey’s first outdoor museum was completed in 1960. In 1960 Halet became professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University, and later founded a chair dedicated to the field.

She fought again when the government planned to dam the Ceyhan River, flooding many archaeological sites. She also campaigned to persuade mountain villagers to keep sheep rather than goats, because the goats were destroying the pine forests. The villagers resisted at first but ended up thanking her because the sheep were quieter at night than the goats. She also encouraged village weavers to switch from artificial to natural dyes for their woollen carpets and kilims, after noticing that the artificial dyes were fading. She helped identify plant roots for natural dyes, and improved the weavers’ business. In fact Halet helped her country in more ways than I have room to write about, including schools, clinics and utilities for rural communities.

Halet Çambel died in January 2014, at the age of 97. When asked what the secret to her success and longevity was, her answer was: “Working, working, working.”