Friday, 26 May 2017

Trowelblazers - Halet Çambel

Halet Çambel was a Turkish archaeologist - and an Olympic fencer! She was the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympic Games, in 1936, in Germany. She was invited to meet Adolf Hitler, but refused on political grounds. She had already been dubious about competing in the "Nazi Games" and felt that this was a compromise too far, according to her obituary in the Telegraph.

Here she is, third from the left.

She was born in Berlin in 1916, the daughter of a Turkish cultural attaché there. The family was very close to Kemal Ataturk, and they could not return to Turkey until the mid 1920s, when Turkey became a republic. She was a frail child so, inspired by German children's books about knights, she decided to learn fencing. Later she was educated in Turkey, and went on to study archaeology at the Sorbonne in Paris between 1933 and 1939. Returning to Turkey, she became a scientific assistant at Istanbul University in 1940. In 1944 she received a Doctorate and in 1947 she began lecturing there.
She also spent two years as visiting scholar at the University of Saarbrucken in Germany and did a lot to strengthen ties between the German and Turkish archaeological communities.
Later, she became a professor, and founded the Institute of Prehistory at Istanbul University. She married Nail Çakırhan, an architect and communist poet, who divorced his Russian first wife in 1937, and they remained together for seventy years.
She dug at Karatepe, in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey, after the Second World War, with the German archaeologist Helmut Theodor Bossert, who was the professor of archaeology at Istanbul University. This was a site associated with the 12th Century BC Hittite king Azatiwada, and she played a key role in deciphering the Hittite hieroglyphics found at the site, with the help of the Phoenician alphabet. This site became her life's work - for over fifty years she spent about six months of every year there. She also spent time in the early days teaching the local children, as there were no schools in the remote area.
She was also active in preserving her country's cultural heritage, creating an outdoor museum at Karatepe in 1960, for which her husband designed some buildings. She also opposed the damming of the Ceyhan River, which would have drowned many archaeological sites. She was able to negotiate a compromise on the water level which saved the sites.
In 2004, she received the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands for her services to Turkish archaeology.
She died in 2014, aged 97.

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