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.