Tawfik Canaan was born in 1882 in Beit Jala, graduated with honors in medicine from the American University of Beirut in 1905, and in 1912 opened what was then the only Arab clinic in Jerusalem. Married to German-born Margot Eilender, as Canaan expanded his interest in folklore, folk medicine, archaeology, and domestic life in Palestine, their Jerusalem home was frequently filled with well-known scholars. As a practicing physician, Canaan’s interest in amulets was first kindled in his medical visits to villages in the Jerusalem district. He wrote of his collection: “I came across most of these amulets and charms from all segments of the Muslim and Christian population of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas…. I was able to familiarize myself … with their usage, origin, productions, and reasons attributed to their healing capabilities.”
The Tawfik Canaan Amulet Collection contains 1380 objects. The earliest acquisition is dated 1912, and the latest 1946. Canaan carefully attached the items in the collection on rectangular cardboard pieces, numbering them and adding remarks pertaining to their origin and usage in the collection. The amulets and amulet-quality jewelry are made of diverse materials, including silver, glass beads, stones, paper, animal bones and teeth, plants, and wood. They were meant to be worn or attached to the body for the healing of specific diseases or to ward off the evil eye, or other dangers in folk belief. Canaan acquired his amulets from people from all walks of life, including patients, children, and well-known sheikhs in Jerusalem, village leaders, peasants, pilgrims, and priests.
Many of the objects collected by Canaan were already disappearing from Palestine as he worked to record and save them for posterity. Without his scholarly work and continued commitment, these objects could have been lost from the memory of the Palestinian people. In 1996, the Canaan family restored this important collection to the Palestinian public by donating it to Birzeit University. This is the first time the Tawfik Canaan
This collection is comprised of more than a hundred traditional dresses and costumes and an additional hundred accessory items (headdresses, jewelry, belts, etc. The costumes are representatives of the different geographic and urban regions in Palestine such as
Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, Jaffa, Bir el Sabe’ and so on. Each of these garments carries a specific identity, with typical features pertinent to its origin. They are usually identifiable from one another by the type of embroidery, fabric, pattern and colors.
Through the kind donations of paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture and other items by Palestinian, Arab and international artists, the museum has compiled a small but impressive collection of around two hundred and fifty artworks. A valuable part of the collection is made up of the works of renowned Syrian–born, Berlin-based artist Marwan Qassab Bashi, who in 1988 offered the University seventy-five original works under the name “To the Children of Palestine.”