GAZA CITY — The discovery in Gaza of a life-size bronze statue of a naked ancient Greek god has presented the Palestinian territory’s Islamist rulers with a dilemma: should there be a cover-up?
Religious sensitivities about nudity and pagan idolatry aside, mystery also surrounds the circumstances of how the statue of Apollo turned up.
A fisherman says he found it by the seashore, but the green patina on the impressive 2,500-year-old artifact suggests it was discovered on land.
The statue, weighing 450 kilograms(1,000 pounds) and 1.7 metres (5.8 feet) in height, is being kept by police at an undisclosed location as they investigate, although the Hamas government has distributed photographs.
Fisherman Jawdat Ghorab, 26, from the central Gaza Strip town of Deir al-Balah told AFP he found the figure among rocks on the seashore last August.
“I saw a treasure, a gift from God,” he said. “I thought that my life of poverty had been transformed.”
He said that with great effort he and his family loaded the statue onto a donkey cart and brought it home where it was placed on a mattress until its confiscation by the police.
Ghorab admits to breaking off one of the figure’s fingers, thinking that it might be made of gold.
“I’m asking the government for a reward of 10 percent of (the statue’s) value,” he said, hoping to be officially recognized as the finder.
But experts who had heard rumours of such as discovery for months contend that Ghorab’s version is pure fiction.
“The find had to be made public to save it from destruction by vandals,” an archeologist who has excavated widely in the region said on condition of anonymity.
“It is the lure of profit which guarantees its conservation,” he added, estimating the statue’s value at around $20 million (15 million euros).
“But immediately, politics becomes involved,” with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority — forced out of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007 — wanting to have its say.
The PA’s deputy tourism minister, Hamdan Taha, said his concern was the statue’s restoration and its possible sale.
“This is a very important and exciting scientific discovery and we’re trying — with several parties — to follow developments,” he said.
“What gets in our way is Hamas’s control of Gaza.”
‘Cover its genitals’
Young Gaza archeologist Fadel al-Utol said the statue, with its green patina, was unlikely to have come from beneath the waves.
“It is 90 percent intact and was probably found on land,” he told AFP. “If it had spent time underwater, the bronze would be blackened.”
“It’s more likely that the statue was found in an ancient temple in the Gaza area. We need to search and find out,” he said.
Utol said statues of such a size are rare, although a smaller example is held by the Louvre in Paris.
He has suggested to the Hamas government’s tourism and antiquities ministry that a Franco-Palestinian team help restore the Gaza Apollo and put it on display in a local museum.
Local sensitivities in religiously conservative Gaza, however, would oblige “covering its genitals with an antique sculpture of a mulberry leaf out of consideration for Palestinian and Islamic values,” he said.
Hamas deputy prime minister Ziad al-Zaza said his organization “wanted to preserve antiquities and the history of mankind.”
The statue is in the hands of the interior ministry pending the investigation to determine “if it was found in the sea or moved from somewhere else,” he said.
“After the inquiry, the statue will be returned to the tourism and antiquities ministry which will make contact with interested international parties, particularly France which is one of the most interested in (Gaza) antiquities,” he said.
“We are reaching out our hand to international institutions, to museums and to governments to take part in the restoration and display of this exceptional piece in the museums of Gaza or elsewhere,” the ministry’s director general Ahmad al-Borsh said.
“The statue could perhaps be loaned to a famous French or British museum, which could bring about contacts between the Gaza government and foreign governments,” said Mohammed Khalla, Hamas’s deputy tourism minister.
But it is a long way from Gaza to the British Museum or the Louvre.
The European Union shuns formal contact with Hamas, which both Brussels and Washington have classified as a “terrorist organization.”