ISTANBUL - Muazzez Çığ became a Sumerologist simply because the university classes in French, her preferred subject, were already full when she applied for them. Now in her 90’s, Muazzez Çığ has hit the headlines with a court case opened against her for inciting religious hatred
Born in 1914, Muazzez Ilmiye Itil’s father was a teacher and had especially wanted a daughter who he wanted to have learn French and study the violin - hence the name Ilmiye, which means ’knowledge.’ Her parents on both sides were from the Crimea originally and migrated to Turkey. Her mother’s family settled in Bursa and her father’s in Merzifon. However after the Greek army invaded Izmir and advanced towards Ankara, the family moved to Corum where they thought they would be safer.
How did Muazzez Hanim become interested in Sumerology? She and a close friend, Hatice Kizilyay, had completed teacher training and were going on to university and she wanted to study French, she could not, however, because those classes were already full. Her advisor then suggested Hittitology, Sumerology and Archaeology. The two of them had never heard of these but gamely decided to pursue them.
The 1930s was a time when a number of prominent German Jewish scholars took refuge in other countries because of the rise of the Nazis. Quite a number of them came to Turkey including B. Lansberger and his student, Hans Guterbock, who became a world-renowned Hittite scholar. Undoubtedly this was an exciting time with plenty of stimulus.
The 1930s was also a time of reform under the leadership of Ataturk who particularly liked to encourage women. Although Turkey was far from recovering from the War of Independence and lacked capital and an industrial base, the government took on the burden of setting up needed industry and educational opportunities. But we see at the same time the start of businesses that today still dominate the Turkish business world. As often happens, in a society with a large proportion of uneducated people, women who do have an education can generally secure a good job.
After finishing her studies, she along with her friend Hatice Kizilyay was appointed to work in 1940 at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums and spent the whole of her professional life there. The same year Kemal Çığ, the director of Topkapi Palace Museum, and she were married. She and others were responsible for the cuneiform tablets. It is what some would call this armchair archaeology, because she didn’t need to take part in excavations. Her material had already been collected and stored in the Museum although lacking storage drawers and cupboards. These came later.
Working with Samuel Noah Kramer
She was working at a time when the great Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer was producing as many translations of Sumerian literary texts as possible. Excavations in the second half of the 19th century had produced innumerable tablets, many of which were deposited in Istanbul thanks to Osman Hamdi Bey, who founded the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.
When Çığ talks about the conditions in which she worked, you wonder why she continued. Salaries were low, appointments were made on a personal basis, no budget from the government for anything extra such as publishing books, storage cupboards had to be made by the museum staff and compared with the early start of museums and museology in the West, Turkey lagged very far behind. In fact only very recently have museum studies courses been added to university curriculum. Certainly Çığ had none but then she was a philologist more than anything else and had studied to be a teacher.
She has published a number of books ranging from one on the Hittites, whose language she originally set out to learn to Ataturk’s thoughts. She is after all counted among the group of women whom the Turkish leader befriended and saw to their education.
Çığ is a staunch secularist and outspoken in her opinions but found herself taken to court two years ago at the age of 92 not for her secular beliefs but because of her writing in which she took on the turban/veil issue. Conservative Muslims believe that women should keep their hair covered while secularists believe wearing them should continue to be banned. According to Çığ and research that she had been carrying out for several years, Sumerian women who were priestesses and offered sexual services were the first to wear veils. An Izmir lawyer had her taken to court on the grounds that she was fomenting religious hatred. It took about one hour for her to be acquitted by the court in which she appeared.
Muazzez İlmiye Çığ over the course of her lifetime has written 14 books Ğ she reportedly only learned to use a computer when she was 85. She never seems to stop or slowdown.