A Greek Treasure Pulled From The Sea Disappears Again In Gaza
On a sunny Friday in August last year, Judah Abughorab paddled a small, flat boat over the blue Mediterranean Sea about 100 yards off the Gaza Strip's sandy shore.
He doesn't really like to eat fish, but catching them is the unemployed construction worker's favorite pastime.
That day, he netted a half a dozen. Then, through the clear water, he spotted something that made him look again.
"It looked like a person," he says. "Eyes, a face, hands, fingers."
Abughorab says he was scared, but dived 5 yards down to have a closer look. One touch told him the human form was made of metal.
"I realized it was a statue," he says. "I tried to move it, but it was so heavy I thought it was tied to the bottom."
The impoverished, densely populated Gaza Strip was for centuries a crossroads of many different civilizations. Archaeologists and amateurs have uncovered ancient statues, Greek coins, Roman glass bottles and Byzantine mosaics in Gaza.
The nearly 6-foot-tall, curly-haired bronze that Abughorab hauled from the sea — with the help of half a dozen cousins and a lot of rope — is being touted by the few who have seen it as a real treasure: an ancient statue of the Greek god Apollo.
A donkey cart hauled the find up a sandy cliff to Abughorab's home. The same day, one of his relatives loaded the statue into a tuk-tuk and took it away for safekeeping.
Officials with the Hamas government, which runs the Gaza Strip, say they have Apollo in storage now. Ahmed al-Borsh, director of Gaza's Antiquities Department, hopes this Greek god can help forge ties with Western institutions.
"We want to establish direct connections with official institutions who share our aim of protecting the statue," he says.
"Direct connections" is the key phrase for Hamas. Considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, Hamas hopes interest in preserving this apparent rare find could crack the door of isolation.
"If it's not restored in the right way, it will be destroyed," says Borsh. "I don't think they will find another Apollo."
Last year, top Hamas officials expressed interest in getting the organization off Western blacklists. Borsh hopes cultural delegations might now travel to Gaza to see Apollo, laying groundwork for future international relationships. He says the Louvre has expressed interest in helping restore the statue, something a Louvre spokesperson denies.
The Gazan government is handing out photos of Apollo and promising to show the real thing soon. Wealthy Gazan antiquities collector Jhoudat Khodary says he has seen a video of the god statue pulled from the sea. He couldn't sleep that night, he says.
"What a beauty, what a treasure, what good luck," Khodary says. "So happy that such an important statue was found in Gaza."
He hedges on whether the statue was for sale at that time, but he says he did not buy it. Gazan archaeologist and restoration expert Fadel al-Otol worries the statue will deteriorate if it's not stored soon in carefully regulated conditions. But he says dreams of Apollo helping Hamas are far-fetched right now.
"It is impossible that the statue will give the government political connections at this point. They haven't even shown Apollo," Otol says. "They are just talking about it, and that won't get them anywhere."
Photos of Apollo show a splotchy brown and green statue missing its left eye, two fingers and a thumb. Abughorab, the man who found it, says he knocked off one of Apollo's fingers with a 5-pound hammer soon after getting it home.
"It had a certain shine, so we thought we should find out what kind of metal it was before doing anything else," he says.
The Hamas government says the finger was melted. The fisherman says it's back with Apollo. Abughorab doesn't want the finger, he says, but is hoping for a substantial reward.
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The Gaza Strip is known for being an impoverished, densely populated flashpoint in the Mideast. The Islamist party Hamas, elected to run Gaza a few years ago, is ostracized as a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union. But Gaza is also the site of valuable antiquities. And now, some Hamas officials hope an ancient Greek god - a statue of him, at least - can help forge some ties with the West.
NPR's Emily Harris tells the tale.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Gaza's western edge is the Mediterranean Sea. Judah Abughorab is one of many men in Gaza who like to fish.
JUDAH ABUGHORAB: (Through translator) It's my hobby. I love fishing. And if I get a chance to sell a few fish, all the better.
HARRIS: One Friday last August, Abughorab tossed his net from a small boat 100 yards offshore. He caught a half a dozen fish and a glimpse of something that scared him.
ABUGHORAB: (Through translator) I was scared because it looked like a person. Eyes, a face, hands, fingers. So I dove down. When I touched it, I realized it was a statue. I tried to move it but it was so heavy, I thought it was tied to the bottom.
HARRIS: Lots of rope, the rowboat and six cousins hauled the find ashore. A donkey cart lugged it up the sandy cliff to Abughorab's home. The statue is being touted as a real treasure. The few people who've seen it say it is a nearly six-foot tall, curly-haired ancient bronze of the Greek god Apollo. But the day it was found, one of Abughorab's relatives took the statue away for safekeeping. It hasn't been seen in public since.
Wealthy Gazan antiquities collector Jhoudat Khodary says that shortly after that, someone showed him a video of the god statue pulled from the sea.
JHOUDAT KHODARY: That night, I didn't sleep. What a beauty, what a treasure, what good luck. So happy that such an important statue found in Gaza.
HARRIS: Gaza has been a crossroad for thousands of years. Archeologists and amateurs have uncovered ancient statues in Gaza, Greek coins, Roman glass bottles and Byzantine mosaics. Khodary says he did not buy the Apollo.
KHODARY: When it come to Apollo, it's a noncommercial issue. It's pure historical issue.
HARRIS: The Hamas government hopes this find might build bridges to Western cultural institutions. Director of Gaza's antiquities department, Ahmed al-Borsh, says Hamas now has Apollo under lock and key.
AHMED AL-BORSH: (Through translator) We want to establish direct communications with official institutions who share our aim of protecting the statue.
HARRIS: Gazan archeologist and restoration expert Fadel al-Otol worries the statue will deteriorate if it's not stored soon in carefully regulated conditions. But he says dreams of Apollo helping Hamas are far-fetched right now.
FADEL AL-OTOL: (Through translator) As a Palestinian and as an expert in antique restoration, I think it's impossible that the statue will give the government political connections at this point. They haven't even shown Apollo. They're just talking about him, and that won't get them anywhere.
HARRIS: The government is handing out photos. In some of them, Apollo rests on a sheet decorated with Smurfs. The statue looks splotchy brown and green. His left eye is missing, along with two fingers and one thumb. The fisherman who found the statue says he whacked off one of Apollo's fingers with a five-pound hammer.
ABUGHORAB: (Through translator) It had a certain shine, so we thought we should find out what kind of metal it was before doing anything else.
HARRIS: The Hamas government says the finger was melted. The fisherman says it's back with Apollo, wherever the Greek god might be. Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.