GAZA: Lost for centuries, a rare bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo has mysteriously resurfaced in the Gaza Strip, only to be seized by police and vanish almost immediately from view.
Word of the remarkable find has caught the imagination of the archaeology world, but police cannot say when or where the life-sized bronze might re-emerge.
A local fisherman says he scooped the 500-kg god from the seabed last August and carried it home on a donkey cart, unaware of the significance of his catch.
Others soon guessed at its importance, and the statue briefly appeared on eBay with a $500,000 price tag – well below its true value. Police from Hamas, which rules the Palestinian territory, swiftly seized it and say they are investigating the affair.
Frustrated archaeologists have not been able to get their hands on the Apollo and instead must pore over a few blurred photos of the deity, splayed out incongruously on a blanket emblazoned with Smurfs.
The statue appears to have been cast sometime between the fifth and the first century B.C., making it at least 2,000 years old.
“It’s unique,” said Jean-Michel de Tarragon, a historian with the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. “In some ways, I would say it is priceless. It’s like people asking what is the [value] of [“the Mona Lisa”] in the Louvre. It’s very, very rare to find a statue which is not in marble or in stone, but in metal.”
The apparently pristine condition of the god suggested it was uncovered on land and not in the sea, he said, speculating that the true location of where it was unearthed was not revealed to avoid arguments over ownership.
“This wasn’t found on the seashore or in the sea,” he said, pointing out that there were no signs of disfigurement or barnacles that one normally sees on items plucked from water. “It is very clean.”
Palestinian fisherman Joudat Ghrab tells a different tale. The 26-year-old father of two said he saw a humanlike shape lying in shallow waters some 100 meters offshore, just north of the Egyptian-Gaza border.
At first he thought it was a badly burnt body, but when he dove down to take a closer look, he realized it was a statue. He says it took him and his relatives four hours to drag the “treasure” ashore.
“I felt it was something gifted to me by God,” Ghrab said. “My financial situation is very difficult, and I am waiting for my reward.”
His mother was less happy when she saw the naked Apollo carried into the house, demanding that his private parts be covered.
“My mother said ‘What a disaster you have brought with you?’ as she looked at the huge statue,” Ghrab said.
The discolored green-brown figure shows the youthful, athletic god standing upright on two, muscular legs. One arm is outstretched, palm held up. He has compact, curly hair and gazes out seriously at the world, one of his eyes apparently inlaid with a blue stone iris, the other just a vacant black slit.
Ghrab says he cut off one of the fingers to take to a metals expert, thinking it might have been made of gold. Unbeknownst to him, one of his brothers severed another finger, later melted down by a jeweler.
Family members belonging to a Hamas militia soon took charge of the statue, and at some stage, the Apollo appeared on eBay, with the seller telling the buyer to come and collect the item from Gaza.
That would have been easier said than done, with both Israel and Egypt imposing rigid controls on access to the impoverished enclave.
Whether any potential buyers stepped forward is not clear, but when Hamas’ civilian authorities found out about the artifact, they ordered that police seize it.
Ahmed al-Bursh, director of archaeology of Gaza’s Tourism Ministry, said he had seen the piece and promised that Ghrab would receive a reward once the issue was resolved. Once police release the statue, his ministry plans to repair it and put it on show in Gaza.
“International institutions have also contacted us and have offered to help with the repair process,” he said, adding that a museum in Geneva and the Louvre wanted to rent it.
Tarragon said it was vital to know the true location of the find.
Some 5,000 years of history lie beneath the sands of the Gaza Strip, which was ruled at various times by ancient Egyptians, Philistines, Romans, Byzantines and Crusaders.
However, local archaeologists have little experience to carry out any scientific digs.
Statues such as the Apollo cast would not have been held in isolation, Tarragon said, meaning it might prove the tip of an historical iceberg.
“A statue at that time was in a complex, in a temple or a palace. If it was in a temple, you should have all the other artifacts of the cult,” Tarragon said, adding that he hoped Hamas appreciated its potential importance.”