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Halet Çambel

Halet Çambel
Born(1916-08-27)27 August 1916
Died12 January 2014(2014-01-12) (aged 97)
Istanbul, Turkey
Resting placeAkyaka, Muğla, Turkey
Alma mater
SpouseNail Çakırhan
AwardsPrince Claus Award

Halet Çambel (27 August 1916 – 12 January 2014) was a Turkish archaeologist and Olympic fencer. She was the first woman with a Muslim background to compete in the Olympic Games.[1]

Private life

Çambel was born in Berlin, German Empire on 27 August 1916, to Turkish military attaché Hasan Cemil Bey (Çambel), a close associate of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, and Remziye Hanım, the daughter of Ibrahim Hakki Pasha, a former Grand Vizier (prime minister of the Ottoman sultan) and the Ottoman ambassador to the German Empire at the time.[2]

She completed her secondary education at Arnavutköy American High School for Girls (today Robert College). During the high school years, she was inspired by her history of art teacher, who organized visits to historic sites of Istanbul. It was at this time that she began to perform fencing. Between 1933 and 1939, she was educated in archaeology at Sorbonne University in Paris, France. Çambel became a scientific assistant at Istanbul University in 1940. In 1944, she received a doctorate. From 1947 on, Çambel served as lecturer.[3] She was a visiting scholar for two years at University of Saarbrücken in Germany.[2] In 1960, she was appointed professor and founded the Institute of Prehistory. She became emeritus in 1984.[4]

On returning to Istanbul after the 1936 Summer Olympics, where she represented her country, she started a relationship with Nail Çakırhan, a communist poet and journalist, who became a celebrated architect.[2] They were married for seventy years until the death of Nail Çakırhan in October 2008.

Çambel died at age 97 in Istanbul on 12 January 2014.[5] Following a memorial ceremony held at Istanbul University's Faculty of Letters, she was taken to Akyaka, Muğla, where she was interred beside her spouse's grave.[2]


She competed in the women's individual foil event at the 1936 Summer Olympics.[6] Çambel was the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics.[7] Although invited by a "female German official" to meet Adolf Hitler, Çambel refused it on political grounds.[8][2]

Professional career

After World War II, Çambel began studying with German archaeologist Helmuth Theodor Bossert (1889–1961), who was professor for archaeology at Istanbul University. In 1947, Bossert and she began excavating Karatepe, the walled city of 12th century BC late Hiitite king Azatiwada, located at the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey.[2] She played a key role in the decryption of Hittite hieroglyphics with the help of the Phoenician alphabet after their discovery of Karatepe Bilingual there.[3]

Çambel was also active in promoting the preservation of Turkey's cultural heritage. In the 1950s, she resisted the government's attempt to move the artifacts from Karatepe to a museum. The government eventually agreed, and in 1960 established an outdoor museum, the Karatepe-Aslantaş Open-Air Museum, where her husband Nail Çakırhan designed some buildings. She also fought efforts to dam the Ceyhan River, which would have flooded many archaeological sites. She was able to have the proposed water level reduced sufficiently to save the sites.[3]

Çambel was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1979.[9] In 2004, she received the Prince Claus Award in the Netherlands.[2] The jury report cited her "for conducting rescue excavations of endangered heritage sites, introducing stone restoration and ensuring proper conservation of significant cultural heritage in Turkey," for founding a chair of Prehistoric archaeology at Istanbul University, and "for her dedicated scholarship and for her unique role in expanding the possibilities for interaction between people and their cultural heritage."[10]


Çambel was celebrated in an exhibition Cumhuriyet Kadınları Sahneye Çıkıyor: Cevval, Akılcı, Dirençli, Sabırlı ve İnançlı, (Republican Women Take to the Stage: Brave, Rational, Resistant, Patient and Faithful) organised at Goethe-Institut Ankara from 5 December 2023 to 4 February 2024 in honour of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey and the 90th anniversary of Turkish women gaining the right to vote. It showcased the lives and careers of six women who were educated in the young Turkish Republic and the Weimar Republic and whose careers made an impact on the world. Alonside Çambel, the exhibition featured computer scientist Marianne Laqueur, architect Mualla Eyüboğlu Anhegger, Semiha Berksoy, Turkey's first Muslim opera singer, paediatrician Erna Eckstein Schlossmann and architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.[11][12][13]


  1. ^ "Halet Çambel – obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 23 January 2014. Retrieved 25 January 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Halet Çambel vefat etti Hitler'in elini sıkmamıştı". Cumhuriyet (in Turkish). 12 January 2016. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "An archaeologist digs through her life". Nature News. 7 July 2010. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  4. ^ "Karatepe-Aslantaş Azatawitaya ve Halet Çanbel" (in Turkish). Arkeoloji Dünyası. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  5. ^ "Arkeolog Halet Çambel vefat etti". CNN Türk. Retrieved 12 January 2014.
  6. ^ "Halet Çambel Olympic Results". Archived from the original on 18 April 2020. Retrieved 6 June 2010.
  7. ^ Sattar, Marium (30 May 2012). "New fields to conquer for Muslim sportswomen". The Daily Star. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  8. ^ Bozyap, Aylin (12 August 2012). "Pioneering Olympian Halet Cambel, who snubbed Hitler". BBC Turkish.
  9. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 27 June 2022.
  10. ^ "The 2004 Prince Claus Awards – Report from the jury". Prince Claus Awards, 2004. Archived from the original on 17 May 2007. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  11. ^ "Türk ve Alman Kadınlarının Efsanevi Hikayeleri". Sonsöz Gazetesi (in Turkish). 5 December 2023. Retrieved 1 April 2024.
  12. ^ Ünalan, Oktay (25 January 2024). "SERGİ | Cumhuriyet Kadınları Sahneye Çıkıyor: Cevval, Akılcı, Dirençli, Sabırlı ve İnançlı, Goethe Institut, Ankara". Dergi. Retrieved 1 April 2024.
  13. ^ "Sergi: Cumhuriyet Kadınları Sahneye Çıkıyor: Cevval, Akılcı, Dirençli, Sabırlı ve İnançlı - Goethe-Institut Türkiye". @GI_weltweit (in Turkish). Retrieved 1 April 2024.
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Halet Çambel
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