The closest most archaeologists have come to examining the bronze Apollo that recently re emerged in the Gaza strip, is to squint at the few blurry photographs of the god lying incongruously on a smurf duvet. Unfortunately for us, the millennia-old statue, which briefly resurfaced in August 2013, has, after a brief spell on eBay, been taken into the protective custody of the Hamas police.
Experts are understandably frustrated by the elusiveness of the statue, which the Gaza authorities insist will remain hidden while they investigate the circumstances surrounding its rediscovery. Authenticity and ownership of the statue have been called into question. But the actions of authorities are perhaps understandable when considered in the context of Gaza’s threatened ancient heritage.
From Gaza to eBay: The Apollo Re-emerges
In August 2013, Gaza fisherman Joudat Ghrab was out in his boat near the Egyptian-Gaza border when he spotted something in the sea 100 metres offshore. As he grew closer, he discovered not a corpse but a life sized, 1,100lb male statue, made of discolored metal.
Unaware of the statue’s significance, Ghrab transported it back to the family home where its nudity offended his mother, and he and another family member removed two fingers to discover what type of metal the statue was made of – and how much it might be worth.
Shortly afterwards, the statue appeared on eBay, underpriced at $500,000 (£300,00) – a move which did not attract a potential buyer but did catch the eye of the police from Hamas, the ruling Islamic group in Gaza. They immediately seized the statue and impounded it pending their investigations.
From the blurred photographs revealed to the world, the Apollo appears to be of a type cast between the 5th and 1st century BC. Covered in a green patina, the statue is of a young, athletic male with tightly curled hair and one complete eye, inlaid with what is possibly an indigo stone.
Gaza: A Land Rich in History
Such a rare, classical statue may seem a strange thing to find in war-torn Palestine, but Gaza’s recent history is just part of a rich and varied heritage that stretches back at least 3,500 years and probably beyond.
Gaza itself is possibly one of the world’s oldest living cities. Placed on the Salah-al-Din Road, it formed a cross roads between North Africa, Asia and the Levant. That position made it vitally significant for trade, culture and war, and in its time Gaza has played host to the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians and Saracens who all left their mark.
Fully-excavated archaeological sites in the area, however, are few.
- Tell Es-sakan is the only early Bronze Age site found to date – it is a 12-hectare site showing signs of continuous inhabitation from 3,300-2,200BC.
- Anthedon was once a major Hellenistic port; archaeologists rediscovered this port in the 1990’s on the site of the beach refugee camp. Anthedon has revealed tantalizing evidence of Gaza’s past as a cultured center of trade, with traces of warehouses and mud brick houses with frescoed plaster walls.
- Of the later eras, Tel Rafah on the Egyptian border has Roman remains while St Hilarion represents the Christian era.
But all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. “According to specialists, what is under ground and under the sea is more, much more, than what has been discovered to date,” says Mr Abdul Shafi, head of the United Nations development programme in an interview with the BBC.
The Apollo could be part of that as-yet-undiscovered past.
The Importance of the Apollo
In itself, the Apollo is valuable for its rarity alone.
“It’s unique. In some ways I would say it is priceless.” Said Jean-Michel de Tarragon, a historian with the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, in an interview with Reuters television, “It’s very, very rare to find a statue which is not in marble or in stone, but in metal…”
But even more important is what the statue signifies to Gaza’s wider history. “A statue at that time was [put] 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 [at the site],” said de Tarragon, “There is a feeling that they could find more and more [items] linked to the statue, more and more artifacts, so this is very sensitive.”
But where do the archaeologists begin their search? For at present, the context of the Apollo is lost. The condition of the statue suggest it was not found at sea but on land which means that its finder has been less-than-honest about where he found it.
Saying he found the Apollo at sea makes Ghrab’s ‘ownership’ more certain than if he admitted to finding it on someone else’s land. But the fisherman’s admission that he hoped to sell the statue to end his family’s poverty rather than sharing the find from a sense of history is not uncommon in an area as unsettled and impoverished as modern Gaza.
Pillaging the Past
The illegal trade in antiquities is common in Gaza. According to a study by the Institute for Palestine Studies “Looting and Salvaging the Heritage of Palestine,” there are 184 known archaeological sites in Gaza, all targets for impoverished inhabitants, who just like Joudat Ghrab are willing to sell off their cultural heritage to foreign buyers to stave off poverty for their family.
In an interview in 2013 with Al-Monitor, a spokesman for the Gaza police described one of the most recent attempts at smuggling when a man was stopped trying to pass into Egypt with an alabaster head of Alexander the Great. This lucky find is no doubt only one of many others that have disappeared into foreign collections.
But pillaging is not the only threat to the remains of Gaza’s past.
The Threats to Gaza’s Ancient Past
Modern Gaza is developing rapidly to meet the needs of the population, meaning many archaeological sites have already been built over and lost, but those already excavated also stand under threat because of Gaza’s isolation.
“We lack the capability, the support and the proper materials,” said Nabila Maliha, an archaeologist at Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in an interview for Yahoo News. The reason? Because border blockades make it nearly impossible for staff to train abroad and gain much needed experience.
Gaza’s troubled situation also makes funding to preserve sites hard to obtain. Although UNESCO has contributed some money, they need at least $47,000 a year to preserves Gaza’s sites, according to French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Humbert who excavated in Gaza from 1995-2005.
In the meantime, those sites are eroding away. Tel Es-Sakan contains the oldest rampart ever discovered in the Middle East. But its exposed mud bricks have suffered from the effects of rain and there are now only remnants of the site.
Gaza Antiquities: Hope on the Horizon?
In view of the tenuous state of Gaza’s archaeology, it is perhaps understandable why the authorities are keeping the Apollo from view, while they try to establish a context and protect the precious find. The Appolo’s seizure is a sign that the authorities are fighting back against the erosion of their ancient heritage.
Police are acting more frequently to prevent looting and the Palestinian Authority has recently approved a plan to build a national archaeological museum in Gaza, with aid from the United Nations. This means that Gaza’s archaeological treasures will soon have their own safe home.
“There is an opportunity to discover things and put them in a place like a national museum, and this is what we’re aiming for,” said the head of the United Nations Development Programme in Gaza, Khalid Abdul Shafi.
Perhaps very soon, the Apollo of Gaza will be one of them.