New Details Emerge in Mystery of Bronze Apollo Held by Hamas

Bronze statue of the Roman God Apollo Photograph by Frank Fell/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

The ancient masterpiece could hardly have found itself in a more difficult or more modern mess.

A fisherman in the Gaza Strip says he found the life-size bronze statue while diving and recounted the details in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek published last month. The Palestinian Hamas movement, which rules Gaza, says it confiscated the bronze and is holding it in a secret location pending an investigation. Adding a wrinkle, some archaeologists say they doubt the statue came from the sea and believe it’s from a clandestine dig on land. They say the bronze is a Greek or Roman depiction of the god Apollo, dating back as far as 2,500 years.

As we reported, “It’s possible the fisherman’s story is an elaborate hoax.” A new interview with him, published by Reuters, gives new details—and provides a chance to see if he’s keeping his story straight.

To begin, most bits match. “The 26-year-old father of two says he saw a human-like shape lying in shallow waters some 100 metres off shore, just north of the Egyptian-Gaza border,” the new story says, tracking his earlier account. “At first he thought it was a badly burnt body, but when he dived down to take a closer look he realised it was a statue.”

Some other details vary. His name, Jouda Ghurab, is transcribed differently from Arabic in the new interview, as Joudat Ghrab. The number of people who lifted the statue from the beach is five in the new account. During the Bloomberg Businessweek interview, he counted himself, plus five helpers.

New details, if true, add color to the scene. “His mother was less happy when she saw the naked Apollo carried into the house, demanding that his private parts be covered,” the story says. It then quotes the fisherman saying, “My mother was alone, she was shocked and said ‘what a disaster you have brought with you’ as she looked at the huge, covered statue.” Part of the new interview is on video and gives a view of the beach, with the fisherman tending his nets, and includes a still frame of the statue being held upright.

One controversial part of the saga is the Apollo’s missing fingers (three, plus a thumb, are broken). The new account has the fisherman saying he cut off one of the statue’s fingers for testing, thinking it was gold, and that one of his brothers also severed a digit. In the earlier interview he acknowledged there were missing fingers and that family members had the metal tested. Yet he said he knew of no intentional cutting and that his brother accidentally broke off a thumb. It’s an open question whether these variations indicate an inconsistency in his story, a guilty conscience, or something else.

Sam Hardy, a British archaeologist who runs the Conflict Antiquities blog, has been sorting through the possibilities since October, when Italian newspaper La Repubblica published an article on the bronze, which the Bloomberg Businessweek story cited. The Italian piece was datelined Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the landlocked West Bank, which is geographically unconnected to Gaza. It gave a different set of facts—from the fisherman’s name (“Mounir”) to the time of the find (at night, under a full moon). Hardy titled a recent posting, “The Apollo of Gaza: stories as different as night and day.”
In response, the La Repubblica correspondent, Fabio Scuto, wrote on the Conflict Antiquities site that “[t]he circumstances surrounding the discovery are only one detail: what is important is the discovery of the statue, the fact that it was seized by Hamas and that someone has tried to sell it on the black-market.” He also tweeted a similar message:

Scuto also said his publication of photos of the statue had prevented international trafficking of the bronze. The statue is likely worth tens of millions of dollars, if it could ever be sold. For now, two mysteries linger: How was the Gaza Apollo truly found? And what will happen to him next?

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