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178, February 2013 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Tawfiq Canaan
By Khalil Shokeh
Tawfiq Canaan was a Palestinian physician and scholar who authored a great number of publications in German and English both in Palestinian ethnography and in medicine, his field of expertise. He was an intellectual and a remarkable man. His bicultural spirit combined a Palestinian cultural identity and a profound European educational background. While befriending American, European, and Jewish scholars, he spoke up vehemently for the Palestinian cause and wrote several books and articles on the subject. Along with his German wife Margot and his sister Badra, he was imprisoned by the British forces for their anti-Mandate and anti-Zionist attitudes and activities.

More than anything, Canaan was and always will be remembered for his achievements in the field of Palestinian popular beliefs, as expounded in his famous books Aberglaube und Volksmedizin im Lande der Bibel i and Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine. His works are used and quoted extensively by researchers and scholars of Middle Eastern popular beliefs and folklore. He was an eyewitness to the last gasps of the Ottoman Empire, the revolution of the young Turks, the British Mandate period, the creation of the Jewish State, and Jordanian rule; his life ended three years before the Six-Day War of 1967. He was politically committed and whole-heartedly dedicated to the Palestinian cause.

Canaan was born in 1882 in Beit Jala to the Protestant family of Bishara Canaan, the first Arab evangelist of the German Protestant Mission and founder of the Lutheran Church in Beit Jala. He attended Schneller School in Jerusalem, and in 1898, he went to Beirut to study medicine at the American University of Beirut, where he graduated in 1905. His first employment was with the German Deaconess Hospital in Jerusalem. In 1913 he became head of the Malaria Department of the International Health Bureau in Jerusalem and worked as a doctor in the Arab General Hospital in Al-Sheikh Badr Quarter.

From 1912 to 1914, and in 1922, he lived in Germany to develop his knowledge of bacteriology, tropical diseases, and microscopy. In 1912, he married Margot Eilender, the daughter of a German tradesman. They had four children Yasma, Theo, Nada, and Leila. He was ordered by the Turks to serve as a doctor in the army during World War I.

After the war, he returned to the Arab General Hospital in Jerusalem and remained there until 1939. During the same period he worked for short intervals at the Lepers’ Asylum in Jerusalem. In 1947, he founded the Palestinian Medical Association and was its president for many years. He was also on the editorial board of its medical journal. Canaan was a founding member of the Palestine Oriental Society in 1920, and a co-publisher of the Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society. He contributed a number of articles to the Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palastinas,ii as well as to the Journal of Palestinian Oriental Studies. He was appointed director and senior physician at the Augusta-Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. He died in January 1964 and was buried in the Lutheran Cemetery of Bethlehem.

Canaan was a well-known and sought-after physician. He had excellent knowledge of German, Hebrew, and English. He was also a distinguished ethnography collector with a particular emphasis on objects relating to his main field of interest: popular belief and medicine. He wrote forty-five articles on Arab folklore, and during the years 1920 to 1938, his most productive years, he contributed thirty publications on ethnography.

He also compiled a list of the local Arab names and monuments, and the oral traditions and history attached to them. He studied Bedouin tribes as well. Perhaps his most important article was “The Palestine Arab House: Its Architecture and Folklore.” He wrote about agriculture, politics, and Jewish immigration in his many articles and books, such as Conflict in the Land of Peace.

Canaan’s achievements in this period also comprised research in other fields. His interest in the history of the country led him to become involved in archaeology as well. His circle of friends included people who were well-known in the field, including James L. Starkey, William F. Albright, Kathleen Kenyon, Martin Noth, Gustaf Dalman, and Judah Magnes, among others. Canaan was a member of the American Schools of Oriental Research and was most interested in the excavations being conducted in Palestine and Transjordan. In 1929 he participated in the Monde Expedition to Petra and published the results of his ethnographic and ethno-historical work there in the Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society and in his book Studies in the Topography of Petra and its Surroundings.

Canaan was known for his passion for collecting. In his house in Al-Musrara neighbourhood of Jerusalem he kept a collection of Palestinian amulets and talismanic objects, which he collected between 1905 and 1947. He also had a library and a rich collection of Palestinian icons. His house was burned in 1948 with the library, but he was able to save the amulets and talismanic objects and the icons. His family donated 1,400 amulets to Birzeit University; 230 objects were put together by Canaan for the Pitts River Museum at Oxford; and other amulets that were collected by Lydia Einsler are now in the Ethnographic Museum of Dresden. His collection was the focal point of most of his writings.

On October 30, 1998, the Ethnographic Museum of Birzeit University organised an exhibition entitled “Ya Kafi, Ya Shafi iii: The Tawfik Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets,” to honour Canaan and celebrate his achievements.

Khalil Shokeh is an historian and researcher on the history and cultural heritage of Bethlehem. He can be reached at

i    Superstition and Popular Medicine in the Land of the Bible.
ii    Journal of the German Palestinian Association.
iii    Oh Protector, Oh Healer.

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