Halet Çambel was brought up between declining empires. She was born in Berlin while her father was attaché to the German Empire for the Ottomans. He was a personal friend of Kemal Atatürk, not-quite-yet founder of the Republic of Turkey. Her mother, hardly less grand, was daughter of the Berlin ambassador, a former grand vizier.
A sickly child, Çambel had begun fencing at her Istanbul private school in 1930 to improve her fitness. As part of Atatürk’s drive to create a new, secular Turkey, she was urged to return to Berlin to compete in the 1936 Olympics, becoming with her compatriot the first Muslim women competitors in the Games. Once there, she was earnestly encouraged to meet Hitler – and refused. ‘We did not approve of Hitler’s regime,’ Çambel explained to the BBC.
Returning to Turkey, she eloped with Communist activist, journalist, and poet Nail Çakırhan. Her family disapproved, but theirs proved a formidable and long-lasting union, notwithstanding Nail’s imprisonment from 1946 to 1950.
Çambel did not stand by idle while her husband was in jail. In 1947, she undertook what became a lifetime’s work, excavating the 12th-century BC Hittite fort at Karatepe with German archaeologist Helmuth Theodor Bossert. By her own account, they were lucky: ‘Caught by a snowstorm one night… we heard from shepherds… that they had seen a lion’s head in Karatepe, so we went there… and found that the whole hillside was full of historical artefacts.’ Founded by King Azatiwada, this ruined city had richly carved monumental gateways and, even more significant, an 8th-century BC stela that, bearing the same text in both the Phoenician alphabet and Luwian hieroglyphics, gave Çambel the key to unlock the Luwian language for future scholars.
By the time Çakırhan joined her at Karatepe, Çambel had won an argument with the government, who had wanted to remove her discoveries. So Çakırhan built out of concrete the roof cover that became in 1957 an open-air museum, centrepiece of Karatepe-Aslantaş National Park. Then, when the government sought to dam the Ceyhan River, she shrewdly and successfully campaigned to save the archaeology from flooding.
Çambel was also intensely practical. A colleague recalled how she educated village children for three hours a day and was careful to dress inoffensively in ‘practical trousers and simple, high-buttoned blouses, completely covering her upper arms, [with] a man’s cap on her short-cut hair.’
Appointed professor in 1960, Çambel founded the Institute of Prehistory at Istanbul University. But even in her mid-nineties, she worked six months a year at Karatepe. In 2012, she told the BBC the secret of her long life: ‘Working, working, working.’