Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Turkey’s first female Olympian, who snubbed Hitler, dies


Prof. Dr. Halet Çambel, Turkey’s first female Olympian and one of the country’s most distinguished archaeologists, has died aged 97.

Born in Berlin on 27 August 1916, Halet Çambel was the third child of Hasan Cemil Çambel, a close friend of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who was serving as Turkey’s military attaché in Germany at the time, and Remziye Hanim, the daughter of an Ottoman Turkish ambassador. Her school teachers in Istanbul developed her loved of the history of arts, and she went on to study archaeology at the Paris Sorbonne before completing her doctorate at the University of Istanbul in 1940.

During her schooling, she took-up fencing and in 1936 she and fellow fencer Suat Fetgeri Aşeni were selected to represent Turkey at the Berlin Olympic Games. They were the first Turkish Muslim female participants at the Olympics. Çambel competed in the individual foil and while she did not win any bouts, afterwards she and Aşeni were invited to meet Hitler. However, they refused because they were repulsed by his ideas.

"Our assigned German official asked us to meet Hitler. We actually would not have come to Germany at all if it were down to us, as we did not approve of Hitler's regime," Çambel told the BBC.

"We said that we would never have come to Berlin if our government had not told us to do so. When the official asked us to go up and introduce ourselves to Hitler, we firmly rejected her offer."

She forged her career in the field of archaeology. After World War II, she worked closely with German archaeologist Helmuth Bossert. Together, they excavated Karatepe in Adana, located in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey. The site dates back to 12th century BCE and was the walled city of Hittite king Azatiwadda. Dr. Çambel and Professor Bossert’s findings, and her deciphering Hittite hieroglyphics, played an important part in the understanding of Hittite history and culture.

Throughout her career, Çambel worked hard to preserve Turkey’s cultural heritage, often resisting Government development plans that would have seen historical sites flooded or dismantled. She also worked with villages to change their livestock and weaving practices to promote environmental sustainability and preservation.

Her remarkable life and pioneering work resulted in numerous awards including Holland’s Prince Claus Awards in 2004 and Turkey’s State medal for culture and arts in 2010.

Çambel was found dead in her apartment on 12 January 2014. She had been married to journalist and poet Nail Çakırhan, who later became an award-winning architect, and who died in 2008. 

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