Yusif Khattar Kana’an

Yusif Khattar Kana’an’s name won’t be familiar to most people interested in the Palestine Exploration Fund or early archaeology in the Middle East. Unlike the British men who travelled to Ottoman Palestine to survey, dig, draw, measure and interpret what they saw and found, Kana’an was born and spent his entire life in the region.

He worked for the PEF for longer than any other employee, from 1890 until 1913, and oversaw excavations on probably the longest list of sites of any of the organisation’s staff. But unlike most of the PEF archaeologists and explorers we know about, he leaves only passing traces in the archive, almost entirely through other people’s writings and viewpoints. This brief outline of his life story is part of a wider project to piece together his biography, understand his career, and bring his work to a wider audience.

Kana’an was born in a Lebanese village called ‘Abeih, probably in 1874, most likely to parents who had converted to Protestantism (perhaps from Maronite or Greek Orthodox Christianity). We can piece this information together because we do know that he started work as the cook on Palestine Exploration Fund excavations in 1890, at the age of 16, and that he came to Ottoman Palestine with Frederick Jones Bliss (1859-1937), the PEF’s new field archaeologist and a member of one of the leading families of American Protestant missionaries in Lebanon at the time.

Fig 2: Portrait of Yusif Kana’an at Tell es-Safi in 1899. Not yet catalogued.


Yusif seems to have been good at his job as a cook, judging by the recurrent praise in Bliss’ letters and accounts like this:

The meal which followed was typical of many put up by joint effort in the east, when unexpected company called: ‘We dined well on beautiful soup (Yusif), salmon and rice (their cook), leg of lamb and potatoes roasted (Yusif), peas (their cook), jam (Yusif), dessert (their cook), tea and chocolate (Yusif)’.[1]

Fig 3: PEF-P-5694: Excavations at Tell es-Safi. Kana’an, in his distinctive long work jacket, foreman’s staff, and satchel strap worn across his body, can be seen on the right observing the dig with one of the western directors. 1899.

In 1896, however, the supervisor who looked after day-to-day matters on PEF excavations, Yusif Khazine, also known as Abu Selim, died suddenly while the team were excavating in Jerusalem. Khazine was also from the ‘Abeih area and he and Bliss seem to have known one another for a long time; the latter was devastated by the loss and needed a replacement, fast. Yusif Kana’an was by this time in his early twenties and had been working on PEF digs for 6 years. Although he was employed to do domestic jobs, he had already shown interest in the archaeological and historical aspects of the excavations, walking around the sites in the evening after he finished work, examining finds and asking about them. Initially he was promoted to supervisor as a stop-gap, but he quickly showed that despite his youth, the combination of talent and experience made him a very capable replacement for Abu Selim.

Fig 4: PEF-P-5695: Kana’an by the standing stones (Masseboth) of the Canaanite temple at Tell es-Safi. 1899.

Kana’an returned to Palestine every digging season for the next fifteen years, except for a brief gap around 1900 when he worked for the German team digging at the famous site of Baalbek in Lebanon. When Frederick Bliss was replaced as the PEF’s main archaeologist by R.A.S. Macalister (1870-1950), Yusif continued as supervisor under him, and again in 1909 when Macalister left for a professorship in Dublin and was replaced by Duncan Mackenzie (1861-1934). During that time Yusif organised large-scale moves by cart and railway between different archaeological sites, used his language skills to help hire the hundreds of local men and women who worked on archaeological excavations in this period, oversaw the daily work on these digs, and managed the workforce and its pay.

Fig 5: PEF-P-MAC-296: General view over the baths at Gezer (Tell Jezer-Abu Shusheh). 1901-1909.

But Yusif Kana’an’s long career with the PEF wasn’t important only because of his skill at managing and organising. He had a genuine passion for archaeology and history, teaching himself ancient Hebrew so that he could understand the engravings on some of the finds and also acquiring skills in making archaeological casts and imprints. His many years of experience and observations were often valued by the archaeologists he worked with: Macalister and Mackenzie, for instance, record instances when they asked Yusif to compare finds at the famous site of Gezer with objects he had seen excavated at other sites, as part of the process of interpreting and understanding finds. When we look at finds from PEF excavations of this period, and read captions, articles or books when describe and interpret them, the knowledge we are taking in wasn’t just shaped by the British archaeologists whose names are on the publications. People like Yusif, and even the people he interviewed about their local histories and folktales, are in there too, helping to inform our understanding of Palestine and its archaeology to the present day.

As well as sponsoring archaeological excavations, the PEF’s main publication, its quarterly journal, published ethnographic, folkloric and other studies of Palestine and its history. Yusif contributed to these by collecting local histories, proverbs, stories and dialects, especially vocabulary from the Dom people, related to the Roma of Europe. Some of this information – some credited to Yusif, some not – was used in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, especially in articles by Macalister, but sometimes also in short notes and observations. In 1913 Yusif’s notebooks, handwritten in a tidy Arabic hand, were brought to London, apparently by Professor Harvey Porter (d.1922) of the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut) and kept at the PEF. Hopefully more of their contents will soon be made public.

Fig 6: PEF-P-MACK-342: Excavations at the central City area at Beth Shemesh -‘Ain Shems. Duncan Mackenzie and several western visitors can be seen observing the excavations being carried out by Palestinian workmen and women. 1911-1912.

Yusif Kana’an’s career with the PEF lasted almost a quarter of a century, but sadly it did not end well. Although RAS Macalister has a reputation amongst some scholars as cantankerous and rude, he seems to have had a healthy respect for Yusif Kana’an and his abilities. This was not the case with his successor, Duncan Mackenzie, who had clear ideas about how indigenous people’s should not be given positions of responsibility and power, and wanted the PEF to sack Yusif.[2] Mackenzie, however, also had poor relations with his employers and it was he who lost his job after only a few years. Not long after, Yusif was asked to act as guide and advisor to two young archaeologists who had been co-opted by the British army to survey southern Palestine (one, Leonard Woolley (1880-1960), was to become an eminent archaeologist; the other, T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), would soon be world-famous as ‘Lawrence of Arabia). Personality clashes made relations on the survey deeply uncomfortable.

If the PEF had been in better financial shape, and if World War One had not been looming, it may well have been that Yusif’s experiences of racism and conflict with Mackenzie, Woolley and Lawrence could have been written off as a rocky moment and a new archaeologist appointed with whom Kana’an’s longstanding relationship with the PEF could have resumed. Sadly, this was not the case, and in the confusion leading up to the war, communications were marred by disagreements and misunderstandings over pay and conditions. When the PEF was considering new excavations in Palestine in the early 1920s Macalister managed to track Yusif down to offer him his old position; Yusif replied that, as a married man with children to look after, the full-time job he was in had to trump the less secure fascinations of archaeology. Where this new job was, and what happened to Yusif after the brief contact with Macalister, is still unknown: Ernest Masterman (1867–1943), secretary of the PEF, wrote in 1913 that he thought Kana’an was “getting a job with some Americans in Beirut,”[3] and Porter’s possession of his notebooks in 1915 may confirm this route. Only time, and more research, will tell.


Olga Tufnell, (1965). ‘Excavator’s Progress’, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 97(2), 112-27

[1] Olga Tufnell, (1965). ‘Excavator’s Progress’, PEQ 97(2), 118

[2] See, for example, Mackenzie’s letters in the PEF archive, PEF/DA/Mack/548, Mackenzie to Dickie, October 23, 1911

[3] Mackenzie files, PEF, PEF/DA/Mack 319, Feb 1st 1913, letter from Masterman to JD Crace, hon.sec. PEF (1838-1919).