The Spotlight

Halet Çambel: The Muslim Woman Who Competed in the Olympics And Refused to Meet Hitler

The fascinating biography of leading archaeologist Halet Çambel

Halet Çambel is one of the women pioneers who left an indelible mark in the 21st century. Çambel was a leading archaeologist who did pathbreaking research in preserving Turkish cultural heritage and decoding information about humanity’s oldest civilization called Hittites.

As if her discoveries weren’t enough, Çambel was an accomplished athlete and became the first Muslim woman to compete in the Berlin Olympics. At the young age of 20, she was lionhearted and understood the political dynamics around the world. She refused to meet Adolf Hitler at his invitation.

The Early Life of Çambel and Her Journey to the Berlin Olympics

Halet Çambel – Image via Wikipedia

Halet Çambel was born in Berlin in 1916 while her grandfather was serving in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Even after the downfall of the Ottoman empire, the family decided to remain in Berlin.

After the Turkish War of Independence in 1924, the family moved to Istanbul. Çambel’s father, Hasan Cemil Bey, became close friends with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a revolutionary statesman and founding father of the Republic of Turkey.

While growing in the political milieu of her father’s house, she got benefitted from Atatürk progressive reforms towards the advancement of women.

Her liberal upbringing and family’s rock-solid support in her education was astounding. She got exposed to multiple languages since childhood and became multi-lingual. While staying in Germany, she learned German and Italian and she started learning English and Turkish in her school.

Apart from her studies, she developed an interest in sports and started participating in fencing, archery, horse-riding, and bicycling.

She became the first Muslim woman to represent Turkey in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. While this was a proud moment for her country, her refusal to meet Adolf Hitler was a courageous and standout gesture.

Çambel as a Leading Turkish Archaeologist

Çambel’s father was the founding member of the Turkish Historical Society and that’s how her love for learning history began.

She already had a knack for learning languages and so she started her graduation in archaeology and Eastern cultures and languages from Sorbonne University, Paris.

However, she had to leave her doctoral thesis and return to Istanbul as World War II began. She started her job in the newly founded Department of Archeology at Istanbul University as a translator assistant to Helmuth Theodor Bossert. Bossert was a reputed archaeologist who escaped Nazi Germany and took shelter in Istanbul as a refugee.

In 1939, Çambel married a poet Nail Çakırhan who had just returned from the Soviet Union.

She completed her doctoral thesis under Bossert on her assessment of the excavation at the Bronze–Iron Age mound site of Hashöyük in Central Anatolia

Under the direction of Prof. Bossert, Çambel constantly worked at the Karatepe site on deciphering the hieroglyphic script of Hittite which is one of the most ancient civilizations of the world.

Despite the difficult excavation at the Karatepe terrain, she did not give up and continued her focus on the site management and documentation.

Another remarkable effort of Çambel was the construction of a dam near the Ceyhan River on the Karatepe-Aslantaş site. This stopped the flooding of the stones that had inscriptions from the excavation site and further helped in the decoding of Hittite culture.

Along with her research, she was worried about the excavations that were exposed at the Karatepe-Aslantaş site. She wanted to preserve the findings in their natural setting and so she requested Cesare Brandi to help her in constructing an open-air museum in Karatepe. Brandi was a leading architect in conservation who had constructed the first shelter in an open-air site in Sicily.

Çambel and her husband constructed raw concrete sheltering roofs over the entire area of the archaeological remains, one of the earliest of such constructions in the world.

Last Thoughts

Çambel’s intellectual capacity had always been running in front of her academic identity as an archaeologist. She may have written fewer publications than many, but has left behind monumental institutions, trajectories in managing, and, more significantly, a generation inspired by her vision.

Çambel’s vision helped the world in accessing crucial historical information trapped underground.

She is truly an inspiration to all the women who believe to bring change for the betterment of humankind.


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Kamna Kabir

Kamna Kabir is a Writer, Podcaster, and Youtuber. She is the editor of The Collector - an online platform that publishes chronicles on History, politics, feminism and culture. You can catch up with her on her medium blog.


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