The Mysterious Fate of an Ancient Apollo Statue Pulled From Gaza's Sea

Discovered by a fisherman, the statue garnered world renown before being confiscated by Hamas. The film 'The Apollo of Gaza' raises fascinating questions on the origins and fate of the sculpture

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A frame from 'The Apollo of Gaza': Instead of seeing armed militants, viewers are exposed to antiquities tradesmen.
A frame from 'The Apollo of Gaza': Instead of seeing armed militants, viewers are exposed to antiquities tradesmen. Credit: Frank Rabel
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In August 2013, Jawdat Abu Ghurab, a young fisherman from the Gaza Strip, put out to sea. On his way home, about 100 meters from the shore, he saw the figure of a man lying under the water.

Abu Ghurab dived down to him, but the moment he touched the figure, he realized it was a statue. With the help of family and friends, he managed to drag the 300-kilogram statue to shore.

The sculpture was found in Gaza's beach between Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge.Credit: Gaza's Ministry of Tourism/AFP

The statue of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun and beauty, arrived on the Gaza coast in between the Hamas-Israel wars of 2009 and 2014. It was sculpted during the Hellenistic period, more than 2,000 years ago.

It briefly made headlines around the world before once again disappearing, this time into the warehouses of Gaza’s Hamas government, which confiscated it about a month after its discovery. Since then, it hasn’t been seen. All that remains of it are a few pictures of the statue lying on a Smurf blanket.

In May, the Swiss documentary filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff and his partner, Beatrice Guelpa, came to Gaza to investigate the statue’s origins and its fate. The film they produced, “The Apollo of Gaza,” will be screened on Friday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the 48mm Film Festival. The festival is devoted to the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” as Palestinians call their exile and loss of their land to Israel in the 1948 war.

An expert for fixing ancient crockery featured in the film.Credit: Frank Rabel

The documentary raises fascinating questions about both the statue’s origins and its ultimate fate. But in the eyes of the filmmakers and many of the Gaza residents interviewed for the film, the statue and its story are nothing but an allegory for the situation of Gaza and its residents.

This is the third film Wadimoff has made about Israel and Palestine. The first, “L’Accord,” from 2005, was about the Geneva Initiative, a proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement. The second, “Aisheen” (the Arabic word for “life”), is from 2009. It describes the lives of Gaza residents following the war with Israel that ended in January of that year and the subsequent tightening of Israel’s blockade of the territory.

Question marks

In the new film, Wadimoff seems to be trying to avoid dealing directly with the political background to the events he portrays and the situation in Gaza.

“When I returned to Gaza this time, I felt there was no need to talk about politics; I didn’t feel that I needed to explain,” he said. He and Guelpa aren’t “naïve on the political level,” he added; rather, “maybe it is because we know too much about it that we need to look somewhere else in a different manner … if not, it is too hopeless.”

The film portrays a Gaza that’s completely unfamiliar to Israelis. There are no armed Hamas militants and no pictures of demonstrations, no portrayals of the siege or the distress of Gaza residents.

Instead, it introduces the viewer to antiquities dealers, art collectors, archaeologists and a group of students who are learning about and are proud of Gaza’s ancient history. All see the statue as offering a chance for a different kind of reality.

“I love the statue and its story so much that I proposed that we raise money from every Palestinian in the world,” said one of the interviewees, a young man who repairs ancient pottery. “Each would contribute $1 so that we could offer a reward to the person who found it and keep it in Gaza.”

“I view it as a wounded man who needs urgent medical treatment,” added a female Gazan archaeologist. “What happened to it isn’t right, and it’s disrespectful of his dignity.”

The film doesn’t identify the interviewees by name. Wadimoff said this was meant to preserve its allegorical character, but also to protect their identities.

“The statue is a wonderful metaphor for the situation,” he said. “It’s so beautiful that it’s hard to find a place for it in Gaza.”

Director Nicolas Wadimoff. 'The Apollo of Gaza' is his third film on the situation in Israel and in Palestinian territoriesCredit: Ufuk Emiroglu

Anyone familiar with statues of the Greek gods will realize that the Gazan Apollo differs from the norm. First, it’s made of bronze, which is relatively rare because over the course of history, most bronze statues have been melted down for use in making weapons. Second, unlike most of the known statues that remain, he still has a black stone in his right eye, which gives him a somewhat embarrassed look, very uncharacteristic of Hellenistic statues of the gods.

“He looks ashamed,” Wadimoff said. “He wants to be proud, but he’s not allowed to be. He’s a prisoner of the situation.”

There are questions about the statue’s authenticity. Gaza was an important city during the Hellenistic period, so it might well have had a temple to Apollo. But the statue doesn’t show any signs of having spent a long time underwater. It wasn’t covered with algae, coral and sediment, as is typical of statues that spent hundreds of years in the sea.

The film raises various possibilities. Perhaps it came from Egypt and was smuggled into Gaza only recently, as so many other things are, via Hamas’ tunnels, and then hidden underwater to obscure its origins.

A frame from the film 'The Apollo of Gaza'Credit: Frank Rabel

Another possibility is that it’s a sophisticated forgery, perhaps made in Gaza by a local antiquities forger. In the film, a producer of and dealer in antiquities explains how one could create a small bronze statue that looks ancient in just a few hours. “But there isn’t enough bronze in Gaza for this one,” he said of the Apollo.

The fisherman’s relatives, who pulled the statue out of the sea, broke off a piece of it to see if it was made of gold. They then tried to sell it on eBay for $500,000, but removed the offer two days later. After that, they negotiated with several potential buyers, but without success. Finally, Hamas raided their home and confiscated the statue.

The people interviewed in the film spoke relatively freely about Hamas. One, a journalist, said the statue was apparently taken by the organization’s military wing, and it’s impossible to talk to them.

Wadimoff stresses that the film’s goal isn’t to criticize Hamas. “If there is one main [thing] responsible for this situation, this is first, without any doubts, this merciless and inhumane blockade,” he said. “We tried to make the people remember what Gaza was and therefore what Gaza could be again … a crossroad of civilization in one of the most beautiful place in the world.”

His optimism about Gaza’s future is echoed by some of the interviewees, including a major contractor, an antiquities collector and the owner of a cactus collection.

“The abuse of Gaza will have to end someday, and then Gaza will be able to develop and look like you see it here,” the latter said. “What’s happening around us is temporary. The Arabic word for cactus is sabar, and the Arabic meaning of that word is patience. In Gaza, you need patience.”

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