The Tawfik Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets
In October 1998, Birzeit University exhibited for the first time a unique collection of Palestinian amulets, the special collection of Dr. Tawfik Canaan which had been donated by his family to the University back in 1995. The Collection had been protected and sheltered for decades since 1948 and only selected specimens of that collection were displayed. This event unearthed "an impressive cultural treasure and a private legacy".
The significance of the Tawfik Canaan collection of Palestinian Amulets lies in the fact that Canaan collected whatever he saw in terms of strange and rare objects during the first four decades of this century. Many of these objects were already disappearing in his own time. Without his careful collection and notation these material objects would have been completely lost from the collective memory of the Palestinian people.
A doctor by profession, Canaan's prominence in the medical field was not foremost in his rich life. Early in his medical practice, Dr. Canaan started noticing the amulets worn by his patients and he started collecting them and writing his notes and observations until he came to own around 1400 amulets. Canaan catalogued 1,380 pieces, some catalogue numbers containing more than one object. The earliest date noted as acquisition was 1912, the last 1947. Probably at the beginning of the 1940s Canaan started to put together a systematic catalogue of his collection and wrote four volumes, all in German. In addition to the Birzeit University collection, there are 230 pieces at the Pitts River Museum in Oxford which Dr. Canaan collected especially for Lord Wellcome from London.
Born on September 24, 1882 in Beit Jala, Canaan's father had founded the Lutheran Church in Beit Jala and was the first Arab pastor in the Near East. He was also the founder of the YMCA and the first co-ed school in Beit Jala. Like his father, Canaan studied at the Schneller school and went in 1899 to Beirut to take up his medical education. A month and a half after his arrival in Lebanon he lost his father, his mentor, and guide, who died suddenly of pneumonia. Working through his college years, Canaan went back to Palestine to work as a physician in a variety of hospitals and clinics, including working as director of Schaare Zedek hospital in the absence of its own director at the time. In 1912, he commenced in Germany his studies in microscopy, bacteriology and tropical diseases with special instruction in tuberculosis. In 1913, settling back into the Musrara quarter in Jerusalem, Dr. Canaan opened his first clinic, the only Arab clinic in Jerusalem at the time. In 1914, he was ordered to join the Ottoman army and after the end of the war he resumed his own career. In 1939, Canaan was imprisoned for his opinions against the British mandate and Zionism. In August of 1947 the Arab Medical Society was established and Canaan was elected as president. In one year, the society started publishing its own journal with Canaan on the editorial board. At the beginning of May 1948, the Society took over officially from the British Mandate Government in Jerusalem the central hospital and the hospital of the Austrian Hospice. However, with the continued bombardment the Society was forced to evacuate both hospitals. The Canaan house was also directly hit, and Dr. Canaan was forced to leave it and take refuge in the Old City. He was never to return to his house again, for it was burglarized and burnt, and so Canaan lost his home, his library, and several manuscripts ready for publication. However, he was able to hide his amulet collection in West Jerusalem. Dr. Canaan continued to live in a one-room house in the Old City and work in the various clinics established by the Lutheran World Federation. In 1950, and in cooperation with the UNRWA and with the special effort of Dr. Canaan,, the Lutheran World Federation established al Muttala" hospital at the Augusta Victoria Hospice on the Mount of Olives. Dr. Canaan was appointed as its first medical director remaining in office until 1957 when he retired at the age of 75. He continued to live in the premises of the Augusta Victoria where he was given a house called Gardner's House. He died on January 15, 1964 in the very hospital which he helped to establish.
Reflecting upon his collection, Canaan noted that "My profession simplified my acquisition of an extensive collection of amulets and charms" I came across most of these amulets and charms from all segments of the Muslim and Christian population of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in my office. I was able to familiarize myself, as far as that is possible with such objects, with their usage, origin, production, and the reasons attributed to their healing capabilities." (Canaan 1914:VIII). The collection includes an array of different objects. The core of the Tawfik Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets consists of amulets and amulet quality jewelry. Thus one can find all major types of Palestinian jewelry with only a few exceptions such as silver bracelets. The second largest group of objects within the collection are paper charms, consisting of about 200 pieces. Amulets include 135 special glass and stone beads used in folk medicine. Another subgroup in the collection consists of 50 pendants, 37 hands, 8 fishes, and 15 amulets made out of Nebi Musa asphalt stone. Then there are glass articles produced in Hebron (eyes, hands, beads, bracelets, finger rings) and objects made from small imported European glass beads. A very special group of charm vessels are the so-called fear cups of which the collection possesses eleven, supplemented by four dishes. The majority of the amulets are from Muslims, about 250 pieces from Christians, and a few pieces from Jews. The Christian amulets include small gilded cakes made of incense, crosses brought to Palestine by foreign pilgrims, silver medallions with the images of St. George, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus. Canaan acquired many of the objects from his patients, some as gifts, some he purchased and some he accepted in lieu of payment. Canaan received many of his charms from Maghrebin and Nubian sheikhs living in Jerusalem or other places in Palestine, as well as from Palestinian sheikhs. Some of the charms were especially made for Dr. Canaan and his family. Other amulets were acquired through antique dealers.
The Tawfik Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets is a unique treasure that luckily enough has survived the many disasters of the last century to stand witness to the richness of Palestinian culture and traditions.
Text extracted from the Exhibition catalogue: "Ya Kafi Ya Shafi" The Tawfik Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets. Biographical information written by Wissam Abdullah and description of the collection by Gisela Helmecke, Curator of the exhibition.