Haunted Springs by Tawfiq Canaan

Haunted Springs and Water Demons in Palestine


This project is a study of Palestinian doctor, Tawfiq Canaan’s (1882-1964) essay “Haunted Springs and Water Demons in Palestine” published in 1922. It aims to begin locating and reflecting upon 125 haunted springs, wadis (En, Ein, Ayn, Ain), wells and cisterns (birs) in Historic Palestine whereby many sites were located in areas destroyed, abandoned or depopulated from 1948 onwards. Canaan lived in Bayt Jala and documented Palestinian superstition and folklore. He collected, amongst many other things, myths and beliefs that are primarily located surrounding Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem during the first part of the Twentieth Century, which slowly expanded northwards over the years. The categorisation of the springs are as follows:


1)           Springs Inhabited by Good Spirits (a: by Welis, Sheikhs and Mohameddan Saints, b: by Christian Saints)

2)           Springs Inhabited by Very Bad Spirits

3)           Springs Inhabited by Bad Spirits (Less Harmful than the Last Group)

4)           Springs Inhabited by Brides and Young Women

5)           Springs Guarded by Several Spirits (a: by Two Antagonistic Spirits, b:  by Several Spirits)

6)           Springs Which Have a Curative Action and Which Are Not Inhabited by Holy Persons

7)           Springs Which Have Not Been Mentioned


His short text reveals a landscape haunted by rasads, sheytans, marids, djinn and ghouleh; of rural and built up areas inhabited by holy men and women, sheikhs, welis and saints; by animals: hyenas, camels, chickens, donkeys, monkeys, snakes (arbid) and mice; of slaves trying to overcome their master and shepherds sleeping on a cistern where the water (el-hasr) is forbidden to see the light. A number of the hauntings are beguiling in their innocuousness and ambiguity, such as a mouse that haunts somewhere unknown in Beit Surik, or a monkey that haunts a room in Beitillu. Others hauntings, such as the proliferation of brides haunting springs and female holy figures, reveal a peculiar matriarchy at work (and at times, misogyny), whether a proverb to prevent men from straying from their wives, or as a simple metaphor for beauty. 

The project has used open-source mapping which has made available Pre-British Mandate and Mandate mapping of Palestine, specifically detailed early 1940’s maps, produced at the same time as the Nakbah. These colonial maps are juxtaposed alongside satellite imagery, which have then been overlaid into current day satellite imagery and imported into Google as proposed walking routes. The objective of this work is to find whether sites still exist inside the West Bank and whether they are in Areas A, B or C and to what extent their cultural significance remains, also to examine their accessibility and current existential threats by Israeli military ordinances, settler vandalism, archaeological expropriation and / or Israeli parks and tourism.

Much of this project would not have been possible without the kind assistance of Balqees Nakleh from Birzeit University Museum, which houses the collection of Tawfiq Canaan.

Nathan Witt is an artist and a graduate in painting from the Winchester School of Art, the Royal College of Art in London and Ashkal Alwan's Home Workspace Programme in Beirut. He is currently part of CERN Arts Guest Artists programme in Geneva and over the last ten years he has been working between Palestine, Lebanon and the South West of England.