Gustaf Dalman (1855–1941) was the first director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem. Like many others he wanted to learn more about the people of the Bible. But he did not conduct large archaeological excavations. He was certainly interested in them, and visited the sites.
Gustaf Dalman saw that he had the unique opportunity to record the traditional way of life of the peasants of Palestine, a way of life that was already starting to incorporate modern technology and concepts. And so he travelled across Palestine, visiting villages, learning ancient lifeways, measuring the equipment, recording ancient sayings. He learned Arabic, was on horseback in heat and rain, walked along narrow donkey paths, sat around smoky fires in crumbling houses. He was a meticulous observer, noting anything that was done differently in the last village he visited. And he participated. There are probably few men who would have sat over a Palestinian bread oven trying to slap the dough against the walls. That was women’s work — certainly not something for a respected European scholar. But it seems the Palestinians respected him and let him into their lives.
He not only noted the customs of the people, he also studied the land. The geography, the plants, the seasons, the animals, they were all part of the environment in which the people lived and in which he could understand more about the Bible. He always related his findings back to ancient times, taking into account archaeological discoveries. He wanted to illuminate the Bible and compared the ancient texts with the customs he observed.
Gustaf Dalman was not only concerned with the past. Under the Turkish (Ottoman) government he worked towards the reforestation of Palestine and the cessation of destructive agricultural practices.
Gustaf Dalman published his work in seven volumes (including two double volumes). It will always remain the best ethnography of the traditional Palestinian farming community. And it will continue to contribute to our understanding of the Bible and daily life in the villages of Israel and Judah. “Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina“ is currently only available in German, but there are projects to publish the translations into Hebrew and English of the whole series. I will summarize some of his descriptions in this blog.