The Week in Death: The First Muslim Female Olympian Snubbed Adolf Hitler
Halet Çambel, who has died aged 97, was an Olympic fencer and the first Muslim woman to compete in the Games; while she failed to take home a medal from the Berlin Olympics in 1936 she won international acclaim by refusing to meet Hitler. Post-war, she became a renowned archaeologist.
The 20-year-old Halet Çambel represented Turkey in the women’s individual foil event. She already held reservations about attending the Nazi-run Games, and an introduction to the Führer was a compromise too far. “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,” she recalled late in life. “We firmly rejected her offer.”
Halet Çambel was born on August 27 1916 in Berlin, the granddaughter of Ibrahim Hakki Pasha, the Ottoman Ambassador to Germany. Her father, Hasan Cemil Çambel, was the embassy’s military attaché and a close associate of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic.
As she grew up in Berlin with her three siblings, her parents became concerned by her frailty (she suffered with typhoid and hepatitis). “They always looked at me as if my days were numbered,” she remembered. “They would dress me up in layers of jumpers and woolly socks. As I was not happy with this, without my family knowing, I removed these heavy clothes at school and decided to increase my strength. And I also began to exercise. The German books I read contained stories about knights. I was very impressed by them, this is why I took up fencing.”
In the mid-1920s the family resettled in Istanbul, where, prior to the founding of the Republic, Halet Çambel was “shocked by the black shrouded women who came and visited us at home.” Part of Ataturk’s legacy was to expand the rights and possibilities of women. Participation in sport contributed to this emancipation.
She acknowledged the amateurism of her country’s Olympic bid. “We did not prepare,” she said. “Everybody would train in their own spare time.” After an unhelpful spell with a Hungarian coach in Budapest, she arrived in Berlin. She was present when a furious Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium after America’s black athlete Jesse Owens won the 100m sprint.
On her return from the Games she met Nail Çakırhan, a Communist poet and later a celebrated architect. As her family were unimpressed by Çakırhan’s Marxist beliefs, the couple wed in secret. She went on to read Archaeology (along with the Hittite, Assyrian, and Hebrew languages) at the Sorbonne in Paris before gaining a doctorate at the University of Istanbul in 1940. In the immediate wake of the Second World War she studied with the German professor Helmuth Bossert, and in 1947 assisted on his excavation of the 8th-century Hittite fortress city of Karatepe in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey.
Karatepe was to be her life’s work: for more than five decades she spent six months each year at the site. It was there that she helped to develop a greater understanding of Hittite hieroglyphics, the indigenous logographic script native to central Anatolia, and build ties between Turkish academics and the German archaeological community (Çambel was to become a member of the German Archaeology Institute).
A good-looking woman, she maintained a no-nonsense approach on her pioneering digs in south-east Anatolia. “Halet was always respected by the farmers,” said the Danish-German ethnologist Ulla Johansen. “She wore practical trousers and simple, high-buttoned blouses, completely covering her upper arms and a man’s cap on her short cut hair.”
In 1960 Halet Çambel became professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University, where she later founded a chair dedicated to the field. In 2004 she received the Prince Claus Award, the Dutch prize in recognition of a progressive approach to culture .
Her husband died in October 2008.