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When A Priceless Greek Statue Lands On A Gaza Beach

Apollo of Gaza
Apollo of Gaza
Laurent Zecchini

It was about noon on a Friday last August, and Jawdat Ghorab was fishing some 100 meters away from the shore. “I was throwing out my net, and pulling it up slowly, just like I always do,” he said.

All of a sudden, the net became very heavy, so heavy that he couldn’t pull it up anymore. Afraid of ripping the entire net apart, and seeing as the seabed wasn’t more than five meters down, Ghorab decided to plunge. The fisherman says he started to see what he thought was a human shape, before realizing it was actually a statue. He tried to move it, in vain.

“It was dug into the sand, up to its waist,” Ghorab recalled. Thankfully, six of his relatives were fishing that same day in the Deir al-Balah area, located in central Gaza. It took the family six hours to attach strings around the statue’s arms and chest, and pull it back up. A crowd gathered around it. Everyone was admiring the verdigris statue, offering opinions on what to do next.

At that very moment, no one knew they had just pulled out of the water a major archeological vestige from Antiquity: the only bronze Apollo ever discovered in the Middle East. The strange “yellow reflection” on the statue’s plait hair sparked hope among the gathered crowd that it was gold.

The Apollo — which weighs 480 kilograms (1056 pounds) — was dragged with great difficulty on a cart and left in front of Ghorab’s house. When seeing the human-sized statue (about 1.7 meters high), his mother hollered in shock: The Greek god was naked.

Ghorab said he broke off the pinky finger of the statue’s right hand to show it to a jeweler. His verdict was clear: this was bronze. What came next in the story of “Gaza’s Apollo” isn’t as clear. Mohammed Salman, Ghorab’s uncle, supposedly took care of it. Once realizing its real potential value, Salman is thought to have offered the statue to several rich Gaza residents at a price of around $100,000 — in vain.

Ahmed Al-Borsh, the director of the Antiquities department at the Ministry of Tourism, said “merchants” threatened to cut the statue in many parts to take it out of the Palestinian territory and sell it to a collector. He himself was able to see the bronze just once, on September 21, the day the only known pictures of the statue were taken by his department.

With all the agitation stirred, the Hamas police were alerted and took control of the Apollo statue. Salman may be at the origin of that seizing — he is known to be close to the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza.

What's clear is that the statue disappeared. Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister for Hamas in Gaza, confirmed that: “the statue is now under the protection of the Interior Ministry...”

Fathi Hamad, Gaza’s powerful interior minister, is so feared that no resident dares to go to his office anymore, not even to ask for an interview with a foreign journalist.

Even hidden from view, the Apollo of Gaza continues to fuel discussions about its real value. Is it worth $10 million, $100 million, or even more? It was evident that such a treasure would receive Hamas’ interest given its current financial crisis.

“These figures don’t mean anything,” said Father Jean-Baptise Humbert, an acclaimed archeologist from the Biblical and Archeological School of Jerusalem, and an expert on Gaza’s historical heritage.


The Apollo’s actual price “depends on the number of potential buyers. Its sale would clearly be a silent auction,” he said. “The group that holds the statue would be wise to make prices rise.”

Humbert has no doubt of the archeological importance of Ghorab’s discovery. “It is exceptional, seeing as all bronze statues from Antiquity have been melted,” he added. “This could be a discovery as major as the Venus de Milo.”

Antoine Hermary, a professor of Greek archeology at the University of Aix-Marseille, confirmed what Father Humbert said. “This is an antique original and a major work for the history of Greek art,” he said, “Particularly in the region where it was found.”

This is especially important as only three other bronze Apollo statues are known, said Thomas Bauzou, an associate professor of antique history at the University of Orléans who has traveled several times to Gaza. The first one is the Piombino Apollo, found in Italy in 1832 and now located at the Louvre. The second one, the Piraeus Apollo, was found there in 1959, and the last one in Pompeii, in 1977.

The Apollo of Gaza looks almost exactly like the Kouros Pisoni, a bronze bust found in Herculaneum, in Italy. Both have highly similar hair and traits.

Foreign experts haven’t been allowed to take a close look at the statue. Without asserting anything, they say the statue was likely made between the fourth and fifth century B.C.

But this isn’t the only thing they’re not sure about. Are we even sure that Jawdat Ghorab, the fisherman who discovered the statue, told the truth? The story told in March by this young, 26-year-old Palestinian sitting in front of his simple house in Deir al-Balah sounded fair, credible. But no one can be sure of anything.

An unemployed builder before he became a fisherman, Ghorab keeps complaining about what happened following the discovery. “I was told the statue was worth 250 million euros, and I didn’t receive anything!” he said.

Why did Hamas chose to confuse the issue? “The maritime argument works well for the government,” the professor of antique history said. “When in the water, the statue belongs to no one. Once on the ground, a family almost certainly claims its property. Property issues are very important in Gaza.”

Yet the area where the statue was found also provides its own explanation. It is possible that the Apollo of Gaza stayed buried in the sand for centuries, and was only removed from it by recent water flows.

Michel L’Hour, head of the Department of Underwater and Submarine Archeological Research in Marseille, believes in that version of the story. “Bronze that stays in seawater is affected with chloride, but that doesn’t mean it becomes covered with shells,” L’Hour said. “This particularly makes sense if the statue was buried in the sand.”

The sea, Mr. L’Hour said, “is the largest natural safe for bronze statues from Antiquity, as it protects them from men.”

Philippe de Viviès, an expert in corrosion who also observed the statue’s pictures, shares the same view. “Many elements, including the way corrosion products are spread on the statue, make us think that it stayed in the water for a long time,” the expert said. He didn’t exclude the fact, however, that the statue had been partially cleaned.

Speculations around the statue abound in Gaza. A wealthy businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, said the statue was found not far from a Byzantine church, on the Salahuddin road that crosses the Gaza Strip. “The Apollo was found while digging one of the military tunnels that Hamas has been building to protect itself from the Israeli Air Force bombings,” the businessman said.

The Hamas government, he added, “wants to make money out of it but in a discreet way.”


The businessman says an entire faction within the Hamas considers the Apollo as a ‘big business’ opportunity. "They think that, as time goes by, people will forget about the statue and it will then be easier to take it outside of Gaza. They’re not aware of the fact that all the museums in the world already know about this groundbreaking discovery, and that it is unsellable.”

People also find interest in Gaza’s Apollo in Ramallah, in the West Bank, where the rival Palestinian Authority is based. “The Hamas government is illegal, it has no authority whatsoever when it comes to Gaza’s cultural and archeological heritage,” said Anouar Abou Eisheh, the Palestinian culture minister in Ramallah.

“They can’t sell it,” said Elias Sanbar, a historian and the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, declares matter-of-factly. “The statue will be seized the second it appears on the market. We told Interpol, along with the UNESCO office working against the illicit traffic of cultural property.”

Everyone involved in the mystery of Gaza’s Apollo agrees on one thing: it is urgent to restore the statue of the Greek god, in order to stabilize the metal and prevent its corrosion. How might this be done? As of today, no Western government recognizes the Hamas regime, which in theory prevents any antique bronze specialist to be sent to Gaza.

Ahmed Al-Borsh, director of Gaza’s antiquities department, claimed he contacted the Louvre. Jean-Luc Martinez, head of the museum, told Le Monde that the Louvre had “not been officially contacted.”

“If it were to be, we would of course inform the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Martinez said. The Ministry refuses to deal with the Hamas, a movement that France — along with every European country and the United States — considers as “terrorist.”

Al-Borsh doesn’t hide his real intentions. “We want France to break the embargo on Gaza with this statue, and to be the first country to do so,” he said.

Hamas now seems hesitant between obtaining political recognition abroad, and selling the Apollo to a rich foreign collector to fill up its dwindling accounts. But time isn’t Apollo’s friend. After being exposed to air for eight months, the statue’s health is now deteriorating. Was the God of War safer in the sea?

Crunched by Valentine Pasquesoone

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Photo of the ​USS Antietam maneuvering in the Philippine Sea, just as the U.S. and Philippines forces announce the reinforcement of a defense pact, which will provide the United States with expanded access to Filipino military bases.

USS Antietam maneuvers in the Philippine Sea, just as the U.S. and Philippines forces announce the reinforcement of a defense pact, which will provide the United States with expanded access to Filipino military bases.

Emma Albright, Inès Mermat and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Bone die!*

Welcome to Thursday, where top European officials arrive in Ukraine for talks, Israel launches airstrikes on the West Bank, and Australia snubs King Charles on its new banknote. Meanwhile, Claudio Andrade in Buenos Aires-based daily Clarin reports on the armada of 500 fishing boats who gather yearly off the coast of southern Argentina for an "industrial harvest."

[*Sardinian, Italy]

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