WATCH: Mystery surrounds discovery of Apollo statue in Gaza

Local fisherman discovers 500kg. bronze statue of Greek god which Hamas police seize.

Apollo statue unearthed in Gaza (photo credit: REUTERS)
Apollo statue unearthed in Gaza
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lost for centuries, a rare bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo has mysteriously resurfaced in the Gaza Strip, only to vanish almost immediately from view and be taken into police custody.
Word of the remarkable find has caught the imagination of the world of archaeology, but no one knows when the life-sized bronze might re-emerge or where it might be put on display.
A local fisherman says he scooped the 500-kg God from the seabed last August, and carried it back 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 the Islamist group Hamas, who rule the isolated Palestinian territory, swiftly seized it and say they are investigating the affair.
To their great frustration, archaeologists have not yet been able to get their hands on the work of art, and instead are relying on a few blurred photographs of the virtually intact god, laid out incongruously on a blanket emblazoned with Smurfs cartoon characters.
From what they can tell it was cast sometime between the 5th and the 1st century BC, making it at least 2,000 years old.
"It's unique, said Jean-Michel de Tarragon, an historian with the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.
"In some way I say there's no price...It's like if people say what is the price of the painting La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) in the Louvre Museum. There is no price, no way, it's unique," he added.
De Tarragon described the discovery of the statue as "astonishing", because of the material of which it's made.
"It's very, very rare to find a statue which is not in marble or in stone, but in metal," he said, adding that the apparent pristine condition of the statue suggested it was uncovered on land and not in the sea, as claimed.
"The one of Gaza is very special and unique because for us, it has not been, at all, found in the sea... It has been found, we don't know exactly the place, we have a guess you know, in the north of Gaza....But it has been found surely, in the sand," he said, adding that there were no tell-tale signs of metal disfigurement or barnacles that one normally sees on items plucked from water.
De Tarragon says the claim the statue was found in the sea is probably just a convenient story told to avoid arguments over ownership, particularly if the treasure was found on someone else's land.
But he said it was vital to know the true location of its discovery, as it might throw up other amazing finds.
Palestinian fisherman Joudat Ghrab tells a different tale. Speaking to Reuters, 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.
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. He says it took him and his relatives four hours to drag the "treasure" ashore.
"We were five people on the beach, trying to pull it. The weight of the statue under the sea is different than out of the sea. On the beach, five people were unable to carry it. We put it on a small cart and then we turned it upside down," he said.
His mother was less happy when she saw the naked Apollo carried into the house, demanding that his private parts be covered.
"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," Ghrab said.
The fisherman says his financial situation is very difficult and he is expecting that if Gaza's tourism ministry decides to keep the statue, they will give him a reward.
The discolored green-brown statue shows the god as a young man. Standing upright on two, muscular legs, he has one arm outstretched, with the palm of his hand 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.
What happened after the statue was found is not entirely clear.
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 for his own checks. This was melted down by a jeweler.
Shortly afterwards, family members belonging to a Hamas militia took charge of the statue, and at some stage Apollo appeared on the online auction site eBay, with the seller telling the buyer to come and collect the item from Gaza.
The trouble is, Gaza is virtually sealed off from the outside world, with both Israel and Egypt imposing rigid controls on access to the impoverished enclave and its 1.8 million inhabitants.
Whether any potential buyers stepped forward is not clear, but when Hamas's civilian authorities found out about the artifact, they ordered that the police seize it.
Asked by Reuters to be allowed to film the statue, officials at the tourism ministry said it would not be shown to the public until a criminal investigation was completed into who had tried to sell it.
However, Ahmed Al-Bursh, the ministry's director of archaeology, said he had seen it and promised that Ghrab would receive a reward once the issue was resolved.
"It's a unique and huge statue from the Palestinian civilization. It demonstrates that there were various civilizations on Palestinian land. It's a precious treasure," he said.
Once the statue was released by police, Bursh's ministry plans to repair it and put it on show in Gaza.
He said international institutions had offered to help with the repair process, and that a museum in Geneva, and the Louvre in Paris wanted to rent it.
Like Ghrab, Bursh said the statue had been found at sea.
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.
Alexander the Great besieged the city and Emperor Hadrian visited. However, local archaeologists have little experience to carry out any scientific digs and many sites remain buried.