How many people can say they dissed Hitler? Halet Çambel, an Olympic fencer, was the first Muslim woman ever to compete in the Olympics and an archaeologist. She was born in 1916 in Berlin, Germany, the daughter of a former Grand Vizier to the Ottoman sultan. When her family moved back to Istanbul, Turkey, in the mid-1920s, Halet was “shocked by the black-shrouded women who came and visited us at home.” Having survived bouts of typhoid and hepatitis as a child, she decided to focus on exercise to build her strength and health. In an interview, she said, “There were other activities like folk dancing and other dances at school, but I chose fencing.” Halet eventually rose to the level of representing Turkey in the women’s individual foil event at the 1936 Summer Olympics. The 20-year-old had grave reservations about attending the Nazi-run Games, and she and her fellow Turkish athletes drew the line at a social introduction to the Führer; she later said, “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.”
Upon returning home after the Games, Halet met communist poet and journalist Nail Çakırhan and fell in love. Her family didn’t approve of his Marxist ideas, so they were married in secret; their marriage endured for 70 years until his death in 2008. She studied archaeology in Paris at the Sorbonne in the 1930s, earned a doctorate at Istanbul University in 1944, and became a lecturer in 1947; that same year, she worked as part of a team excavating the eighth century Hittite fortress city of Karatepe in Turkey, which was to become her scholarly life’s work. She spent half of each year there for the next 50 years, working with others to achieve a deeper understanding of Hittite hieroglyphic writing and other aspects of their culture. In 1960, Halet became a professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University and founded its Institute of Prehistory, achieving emeritus status in 1984. She lived to be 97.