Halet Cambel 1916-2014

Halet Çambel was one of the first Muslim women to compete in the Olympics. However, she is best known as one of Turkey’s most important archaeologists. Born in Berlin, Halet was the granddaughter of Ibrhaim Hakki Pasha, the Ottoman Ambassador to Germany. Her father, Hasan Cemil Çambel, was a military attaché and a close friend of Ataturk. Her mother, Remziye Hanim was the daughter of the former Grand Vizier. Halet, the third child of the couple, was at first a sickly child suffering from both hepatitis and typhoid. She was frustrated by her parents’ concerns over her health, so at school she shed the heavy clothing they forced her to wear, and exercised in order to increase her strength. Inspired by the heroic knights she had read about in German storybooks she took up fencing under the tutelage of a white Russian emigré named Alexander Nadolsky.

Halet moved to conservative Turkey in the early 1920s, which presented a culture shock to her and her sisters: ‘Coming back here I was eight years old. We were shocked by the black shrouded women who came and visited us at home. My sister and I went to my mother and said: “We don’t want to stay here. We want to go back.”’

She attended a school for girls in Arnavutköy, close to her family’s villa on the Bosporus seafront. She was to live in this villa which closely reflected her scholarship and background throughout her life: ‘Books and magazines are piled high on the steps, rooms and halls are filled with mahogany furniture, faded Japanese screens and other souvenirs of a widely travelled, polyglot family.’

At the age of 20, she represented Turkey as a fencer at the infamous 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It was a disorganised, amateurish campaign by Turkey, with little preparation for the athletes. At a training camp, her long-term trainer Nadolsky was replaced, and Halet’s technique suffered from the change. Although neither she nor her partner Suat Fetgeri Aşeni won a medal, they were internationally acclaimed for refusing the request of a German official that they meet with Adolf Hitler. ‘We actually would not have come to Germany at all if it was down to us, as we did not approve of Hitler’s regime’, she explained. She was also present to witness the Fuhrer storming out in a fury at African-American sprinter Jesse Owens’ historic victory in the 100 metres sprint. Upon her return from Germany, despite her family’s disapproval, Halet secretly married Nail Çakırhan, a communist poet. They were married for 70 years, making a deliberate choice to have no children in order to dedicate themselves to their careers.

After marriage, she studied archaeology at the Sorbonne, including learning Hebrew along with the Hittite and Assyrian languages. She followed this with a doctorate at the University of Istanbul in 1940, becoming a guest lecturer at Saarbrücken University. In 1947, she joined a project run by the German professor Helmuth Theodor Bossert, who had been teaching at Istanbul University since 1933. Together, in 1948, they discovered the site of Karetepe, an 8th Century BCE Hittite fortress city, in the Osmaniye province. This was located in Southern Turkey’s Taurus mountain range, accessible only on horseback. ‘We heard from shepherds in the village that they had seen a lion’s head in Karatepe, so we went there after the snowstorm and found that the whole hillside was full of historical artefacts,’ she said.

For the next fifty years of her life she was to spend six months annually at Karatepe, becoming an expert in deciphering the hieroglyphics on the site. Since there were no schools in these regions, Halet, along with another of Bossert’s students, spent three hours a day providing education to the children of local villagers, with a particular focus on educating girls.

She uncovered and restored a tablet written in the Phoenician language which allows philologists to interpret the Luwian language, an ancient language, part of the Anatolian group of the Indo-European linguistic group. In the 1950s, she was forced to defend the site when government officials sought to remove the artefacts to a museum which she argued would imperil them. In 1957, the Karatepe site was instead established as an outdoor museum, and by 1960 the Karatepe-Aslantaş Open-Air Museum was opened, providing access to stone reliefs, inscribed tablets and several statues, such as representations of the Hittite Sun God, lions and sphinxes. The museum building was designed by her husband, who had become a successful architect.

She would later challenge the government once more in order to prevent the damming of the Ceyhan River, which would have threatened archaeological sites. She also encouraged villagers to switch from grazing goats to sheep in order to protect woodland around the site. This had an unexpected benefit: villagers were able to sleep more peacefully without goats whining at night. She also worked with a local weavers’ cooperative to discover natural pigments from plant roots to dye their carpets and kilims, finding that these were less likely to fade over time.

Although she was most closely associated with the site at Karatepe, Halet’s expertise in conservation and archaeology was also essential at other sites, including Çayönü, a Neolithic settlement northwest of Diyarbakır, Yazılıkaya/Midas Şehri, a sanctuary in the capital of the Hittite Empire, and Söğüt, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire. She also produced numerous publications and broadcasts exploring Turkey’s ancient history. In 1960, she became professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University and in 1976 contributed to the foundation of an archaeology department at The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBĪTAK).

A pioneer and a source of inspiration to sportswomen and scholars alike, Halet Çambel played a unique role in exploring and preserving Turkey’s cultural heritage.

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