Halet Çambel

* 27. August 1916 in Berlin

Halet Çambel is without a doubt the best known Turkish archaeologist. She is one of the most important researchers for primeval and ancient history and the most knowledgeable Turkish Hittite expert.

Halet is born as the third child of Hasan Cemil Çambel and Remziye Çambel. Her mother, Remziye Hanım, is the daughter of the former Grand Vizier and the current Turkish ambassador, Ibrahim Hakkı Paşa, in Berlin. Her father, Hasan Cemil Bey, is the Turkish military attaché for Germany and a good friend of Atatürk. After the First World War the family lives in Switzerland, Austria and Tyrol for some years, because of the treaty of Sèvres and the following occupation of the Ottoman empire. They are only able to return to Turkey after the founding of the Turkish republic.

Regarding these times, the little girl and her siblings Perihan, Leyla and Bülent grow up in a distinctly liberal environment. Their father's closeness to Atatürk, whose efforts lead to the end of the feudal Ottoman rule in Turkey and transform the country into a secular and democratic republic, also moulds the Çambel's family live. Halet will grow up to be a cosmopolitan, multilingual and tolerant woman.

Halet Çambel remembers:

"I was born and have lived in Berlin. My father was the military attaché for the German embassy in Berlin. My father could not come back, because the country was occupied. So the family had to wait until Turkey was declared a republic. Thus we came back in 1923/24. Coming back here I was eight years old. And we were shocked by the black shrouded women who came and visited us at home, too. My sister and I went to my mother and said: We don't want to stay here, we want to go back to Meran."

The culture is strange to her, religion too different. The strict division of state and religion in Turkey is due to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the state in 1923. Atatürk is the first to drive his country towards the west. He replaces the sharia, the Islamic law system, with an Europe oriented judicial system and the Arabic alphabet with Latin letters, a new dress order leads to the gradual disappearance of the 'black aunts' of Halet's earliest memories.

Halet Çambel is one of the last eye witnesses of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's revolution:

"Then the Latin alphabet was introduced and it was a wonderful thing for us, too, because one had to study six years to learn the old Turkish writing. After that came the schools. Courses were held to learn the new writing for those who could not read and write. In front of the schools one could see little girls leading their grandparents by the hand to the school to learn."

She herself absolves middle and secondary grade in the high school for girls in Arnavutköy, where her family has moved into a spacious Köşk (Form of Villa), made of red wood on the Bosporus. At least then it was situated directly on the sea front, nowadays a noisy big motorway is dividing it from the water.

Halet Çambel still lives there. A wide stairway leads to the upper floor. Books and magazines are piled high on the steps, rooms and halls are filled with mahogany furniture, faded Japanese screens and other souvenirs of a widely travelled, polyglot family. Since moving here in 1930 Çambel starts to train fencing at the nearby English spoken Robert-College. As a fencer taking part in the Berlin Games in 1936, she is one of the first Turkish women participating in Olympic Games. This brings an unusual turn in her life.

Çambel has to smile:

"It started during a stay in France. I should have been going back to Istanbul, but then I was called to Budapest to participate in the Berlin games. Our coach was a German girl, a swimmer. She told us: I will introduce you to Hitler. But we just told her not to."

For the Turkish fencers the 1936 Olympic adventure ends without medals. Nevertheless through their participation the young girls give the world an impression about how much the country has changed.

Henceforth Halet Çambel dedicates her life to her academic career. At the Sorbonne in Paris she studies archaeology as well as Middle Eastern Languages (Hittite, Assyrian, Hebrew), at the time subjects dominated by German scientists in Turkey. Her familiarity with German culture is an asset for her during her studies and in her later professional life:

"When my father was a young officer he was sent to Germany for his education. And the staff officer in Berlin told them: 'Gentlemen, first you will learn to sharpen your pencils. Because if you will mark a point on the map with a blunt pencil, the shot will miss the goal.' They had to sharpen pencils for a week. These are the things one has to achieve, to be meticulous in your work ."

Returning to Turkey she marries the six years older known poet and later architect, Nail Çakırhan, with whom she will spend the next 70 years of her life in her parental home in Istanbul. Nail Çakırhan passed away only recently, in October 2008. Her family is against her liaison with a communist poet; they marry in secret and their relationship will become a symbol for a tolerant, respectful and fruitful marriage. They don't want children of their own, their life is satisfying, rich and lively. By now Halet Çambel has lived an academic career that tells a tale of the tradition of Turkish-German cooperation, the history of the still young Turkish republic and of the life of a modern woman in Turkey.

She begins to work as an assistant in the Istanbul Faculty for Literature in 1940 and achieves her doctor title from there. Afterwards she goes to the Saarbrücken University as guest lecturer.

"I would have liked to have more time. From university I passed directly into my professional life. Then all this bureaucracy. The lack of time to do something else."

Halet Cambel and Helmuth Theodor BossertIn the beginning of the 1950's new findings in the antique Hittite city of Karatepe, close to Kadirli in the province of Osmaniye, are decisively influencing her career. Initially as scholar of the German Professor Helmuth Theodor Bossert, she participates in the Karatepe-Aslantaş project and contributes significantly to the further research of the Hittite language. Furthermore she works closely together with Kurt Bittel, the later President of the German Archaeology Institute. In 1960 Halet Çambel accepts professorship for prehistoric at the Istanbul University. She receives numerous honours, among them the Honorary Doctorship of the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen and the Prince Claus Award; at the same time she is member of the German Archaeology Institute.
A quote of the Danish- German Ethnologist Ulla Johansen gives an impression of the pioneer efforts and the example function Halet Çambel gives to generations of students. Çambel and Bahadır Alım, another student of Bossert, had helped Johansen in 1957 in a quite unorthodox way to get into contact with the nomadic Aydınlı to conduct her field research:

Halet Cambel Nail Cakirhan, H. T. Bossert and others"Since there were no schools in the small villages in South- East Anatolia, Halet and Bahadır felt obliged to teach the children of the nearby village, which provided them with workers as well, for three hours each day. Parallel they looked after the health of the villagers. Therefore many farmers came to the excavation site. Despite being a good looking woman in her early forties, Halet was always respected by the farmers. She wore practical trousers and simple, high buttoned blouses, completely covering her upper arms and a man's cap on her short cut hair. She always told the farmers what she wanted and planned to do in a straight forward unpretentious way. I copied Halet's style ever after and never have been offended once, despite everything I have been told before about Turkish men."

Nail Çakırhan follows his wife to Adana Karatepe in the 50's. The excavated artefacts need a wide roof-covered space, where they can be restored, protected and exhibited. A contractor already proceeded works, but has abandoned the project, a new builder has not been found. The project, designed by Turgut Cansever is handed over to Nail Çakırhan, together they successfully finish the building. The first Turkish Open Air Museum has been completed and with it the first wide roof-covered building made from visible concrete. It could not stop there, the excavation house, the new precinct, the buildings of the forest administration and schools for the region are following. This creative period is so very typical for this loyal and patriotic couple, Nail Çakırhan und Halet Çambel, who despite all attempts to obstruct them still manage to get administrators, colleagues and everybody else in their vicinity to cooperate successfully in each phase of their lives.

While for her husband working on Karatepe means a real challenge and the founding stone for a new career as a later award winning architect, Halet will never again free herself from this excavation, which becomes the work of her life.

Nowadays a museum building has been newly constructed beside the original open air museum, protecting the more sensitive artefacts. Of course the exhibition has been designed by herself. A marvellous grand picture volume bears witness to the productivity of half a century. The book she published together with a young colleague resumes decades of research work on Karatepe- Aslantaş; it not only documents the discovery and conservation of the gateways but contains a comprehensive and commented catalogue of all sculptures and reliefs as well as the iconographic research results of the depicted figures and scenes.

The 'Bibliotheca Orientalis' describes the tome as follows:

"… Halet Çambel and Asli Özizyar [have] presented a comprehensive Text- and Picture Volume of the images for final publication. Besides a detailed and richly illustrated study of the style and the iconography of all images, the book also contains the history of their restoration and conservation, which is, at the same time, the history of the construction of the open air museum on Karatepe- Aslantaş. Without doubt this volume is one of the most important new publications in the field of late Hittite research. It provides access to an exemplary scientific process and the irresistible print quality of the presented image material stimulates intensive discussions."

Being asked why, despite her advanced age, she still spends six months of each year on Karatepe, she answers typically clear and pointedly:

"I have started this work over fifty years ago and I will not stop, before I have finished here."

Fotoğraf: Barış Bil / www.tuba.gov.tr   

In the moment work is 'finished' by Halet in person and her younger colleague Murat Akman, who is closely working with her for many years. They began the great task to archive half a century of work at the Karatepe excavations. Even now, while writing this Halet Cambel and Murat Akmanarticle, Halet is sorting out and evaluating documents on her workplace in Aslantaş with her characteristic nearly 'Prussian' discipline and meticulousness.

According to Professor Çambel this 'meticulousness in work' will also be taught in the red wooden villa on the Bosporus in the future. The couple has donated its house to the Bosporus University. Then an Institute for Archaeology and Traditional Architecture will be housed here. It will carry Halet Çambel's name.

Fotoğraf: Barış Bil / www.tuba.gov.tr   

Halet Çambel died on 12.01.2014 and found her last peace next to her husband Nail Çakırhan at the cemetery in Akyaka

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Compiled and written by: Bahar Suseven
Edited by: Halet Çambel

Some additional notes to the text:

Karatepe-Aslantaş "Azatiwatas"

Karatepe, ("Black Hill") is a Late Hittite fortress and open air museum in the Osmaniye Province in southern Turkey. It is situated in the Taurus Mountains, on the right bank of the Ceyhan River. The site (Latitude: 37.258801N Longitude: 36.247601E) is part of the Karatepe-Arslantaş National Park. The images and inscriptions of Karatepe-Aslantaş were originally situated in two monumental Gatehouses in the northeast and southwest ramparts.

The place was an ancient city of Cilicia which controlled the passage from eastern Anatolia to the north Syrian plain. It became an important Neo-Hittite centre after the collapse of the Hittite Empire in the late 12th century B.C.. The ruins of the walled city of king Azitawatas were excavated from 1947 onwards by Helmuth T. Bossert and Halet Çambel. Among the relics found here were historic tablets, statues and other remains; the most important findings being two monumental gatehouses with reliefs on their sills depicting hunting and war scenes and a boat with oars; statues of lions and sphinxes flank these gates.

The site's eighth-century B.C. bilingual inscriptions, in Phoenician and hieroglyphic Luwian, trace the kings of
Fotoğraf: Barış Bil / www.tuba.gov.tr   

 Adana from the "house of Mopsos", written in hieroglyphic Luwian as Moxos and in Phoenician as Mopsos in the form mps, have served archaeologists as a Rosetta stone for deciphering Hieroglyphic Luwian.

First one takes the motorway up to Osmaniye (85 km east of Adana); in the city centre of Osmaniye one takes the road direction to Kadirli, after a few kilometres there is a sign to Karatepe 26 km.

The excursion to Karatepe (= Black Hill) is one of the highlights of the Cilicia Plains. The area around the 1946 discovered ruins has become a Historic National Park (Karatepe- Aslantaş Milli Parkı), which includes a forest area (Pines, Oaks), the Hittite castle of Domuztepe (Pig's Hill) and the Ceyhan- Barrage Lake. Like all National Parks this one is a favourite place for excursions (Picknicks, Fishing).

The route to Karatepe cuts through wide cotton fields, watered with by the river Ceyhan. On the road 13 km before reaching Karatepe, one can visit the ruins of Hierapolis Kastabala (today: Bodrumkale), the capital of the identically named priest-fiefdom of the 1. century B.C.
Here one can visit the leftovers of an old colonnade, shaded by the ruins of a medieval castle.


The German archaeologist Hellmuth Bossert had been teaching at the Istanbul University since 1933, when he discovered the overgrown remains of the late Hittite residence in 1946, which he excavated over the following years together with his Turkish colleagues, but mainly with the help of Halet Çambel. The most important finding being a bilingue, a bilingual inscription covering several tablets in Phoenician and Hittite hieroglyphs, enabling the final decoding of the Hittite language.

The hill had been inhabited latest since the decline of the Hittite empire in 1200 B.C.. Asitawatas, the sovereign of Kizzuwatna, a small late Hittite realm, had his summer residence build here in the second half of the 8th century B.C.. In the beginning of the 7th century B.C. the kingdom has been conquered by the Assyrians and the residence has been destroyed.

The site contains a nowadays heavily destroyed palace on its peak, that had been enclosed by a 100m long wall. Reconstruction focussed mainly on the reestablishment of the relief and hieroglyph ornate stone boulders (Orthostats) that flanked the southern and northern gate houses. In contradistinction to all other Hittite monuments, these unique stones give a more buoyant impression rather than the usual war sceneries: The quite chubby local sovereign is sitting cosily feasting, entertained by musicians, while being cooled and served food and drink by servants. A little monkey crouches under the table. Unique for Hittite art are the images of a mother standing and breastfeeding her child and a boat with captain and oarsmen. Typical Hittite motives are not lacking of course: lions, sphinxes (heavily destroyed), warriors and hunting scenes. The hieroglyphs tell us, that Asitawatas and his people have always particularly "lived in fortune and prosperity", on the other hand the king had revolting citizens deported from Adana to the eastern borders (a 'pacification method' already implemented by the High Kings).


Visitors are accompanied from the custodian and excavation house near the car park. First the way leads to the hill at the southern entrance, where Asitawatas is seen feasting on the left, western wall. The entrance to the inner yard had been watched by stone lions (preserved at the northern gate). The statue of Asitawatas is located in the former palace itself. The way leads downwards to the northern gate, where the orthostats with the boat and the mother-and-child scene can be seen. Generally noticeable are here the winged and combined creatures revealing Assyrian and Phoenician influences and the tablets in Phoenician writing. The eyes of the lions had an inlay of white glass paste. The itinerary leads back to the custodian and recreation areas on foot of the hill.

Practical Advice

Taking photographs is nowadays allowed in the open air museum of Karatepe, cameras have to be given into storage. The museum area is closed between 12-13hs and after 17.00hs, sometimes the custodian does come earlier. Drinks have to be brought, tea is sometimes provided when visiting on appointment.

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Prince Claus Award

The Prince Claus Award is bestowed annually since 1997 from the "Prince-Claus-Foundation for Culture and Development". It is awarded to persons and organisations who excel distinctively in contemporary culture.

The award is named after Prince Claus, the late spouse of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. The main award is endowed with 100.000 Euro, up to ten additional laureates are awarded with 25.000 Euro each.

Main Award: Mahmoud Darwish
Additional Laureates: Javad El-Assadi, Tin Moe, Ivaldo Bertazzo, Bhutan Archery Federation, Halet Çambel, Omara Khaan Massoudi, Memoria Abierta, Far'rokh Ghasim, Aminata Traoré

Helmuth Theodor Bossert (1889-1961)

The art historian and archaeologist Helmuth Theodor Bossert dedicated himself to decoding the Hittite hieroglyphs from 1930 on. He already published an introduction thematical volume in 1932. In 1934 he accepted a professorship for primeval Anatolian languages and culture at the Istanbul University. 1946/47, on one of his many travels through Anatolia he discovered together with Halet Çambel the late Hittite remains of Karatepe above Adana. The bilingual inscriptions found there finally lead to the decoding of the Hittite hieroglyphs.

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