Last summer, a life-size bronze statue of Apollo, the ancient Greek god of light and music, miraculously surfaced in Gaza. The work of art, which is 1.7 metres tall and weighs 450 kilograms, could be worth as much as $340m, according to Gaza's antiquities authority.
But it has since vanished from the public eye - and experts fear that the roughly 2,500-year-old statue could be lost or damaged forever as it has become hostage to a political dispute.
"It was a Friday and I went to fish," said fisherman Jawdat Abu Ghrab of how he discovered the statue. Standing on a cliff near the Gaza town of Deir Al-Balah, he pointed to the sea beneath him. "I discovered the area was full of rocks. I thought I would try and explore it - maybe I could find fish. But suddenly I discovered something in the water. I saw something buried in sand - one arm was raised. I was shocked because it looked like a human."
|Jawdat Abu Ghrab, a fisherman, says he discovered the Apollo statue [Lena Odgaard/Al Jazeera]
Unable to lift it from the water, Abu Ghrab went to get help. Hours later he proudly presented the unusual catch to his mother - who was less excited about letting the naked statue into her house and asked her son to cover up its male parts.
Neighbours and relatives came to see the peculiar houseguest, and one asked to call the authorities. Abu Ghrab refused, he said,but let the relative take the statue for safekeeping. A month later, the government seized it, promising Abu Ghrab a reward of 10-20 percent of the statue's value, he said. He has not heard from them since, and has no idea where the statue is.
Ahmed al-Bursh, director of archaeology at Gaza's Ministry of Tourism, told Reuters news agency that Ghrab would receive a reward. According to him, the police are keeping the statue in custody after it briefly appeared on Ebay.com for sale at a fraction of its estimated value. The police are now reportedly investigating who tried to sell it.
Could Apollo help Gaza?
Bassem Naim, advisor for foreign affairs to Ismail Hanyieh, the prime minister of Gaza's Hamas-led government, told Al Jazeera that the statue is in the custody of the Ministry of Tourism. "They are taking care of the statue and finding out how Gaza can make the maximum benefit of the statue - not only at a financial level, but also culturally," he explained. "When we find a statue like Apollo, I'm sure it will divert the attention of millions around the world toward the small suffering city, and I hope it can help Gaza attract the attention of the international community towards the suffering of Gaza."
People are ignoring the statue and its value, and we are losing time.
But time is precious when it comes to restoration, said Fadel Alotol. He leads the archaeological excavation of the Tel Umm el-Amr site in Gaza, and is one of the few archaeology and restoration experts in the Palestinian territory. To his frustration, he has not been able to see the statue except for the few leaked pictures of it, and said he was the one who identified the statue as depicting Apollo.
Experts, including Alotol, have questioned Jawdat's story, arguing that the colour and apparent excellent condition of the statue contradict the story that it was found in the sea. They speculate it was discovered inland, under the ground, and that the real story has been stifled either to avoid arguments of ownership or to avoid revealing that it was found while digging tunnels to nearby Egypt.
Alotol fears that the government is using the statue as political leverage to engage with European countries. The European Union brands Hamas as a terrorist organisation and will not meet with members of the party at an official level.
'We are losing time'
Museums in France and Switzerland have reportedly expressed interest in borrowing the statue for display and helping with the restoration. Still, according to Alotol the statue holds no value on a political level - and since no one in Gaza has the required tools or expertise to restore it to international standards, he believes the only solution is to send Apollo to France where he said the statue stands the best chance of being restored.
"I am so angry and so sad because people are ignoring the statue and its value, and we are losing time," said Alotol. He sees the statue as one of the biggest discoveries in the area, referring to the find as "the pyramids of Gaza".
"If people hadn't started working on the pyramids right away, they would have been lost with years. The same goes for Apollo. If they [the authorities] leave Apollo without restoring it, it will be affected by the weather - it will be lost forever," Alotol told Al Jazeera.
Naim said there is reluctance to hand over the statue to French experts for fear that it will not be returned. "Due to the official relationship of, for example, the government of France and the government in Gaza, there is a fear and mistrust and it will take time to tackle this issue."
According to Julien Chiappone-Lucchesi, director of the French Institute in Ramallah, the idea that France would steal the statue is ridiculous. He said international regulations forbid that from happening, but believes the suspicion originates from France's colonial past. Also, since 1967 Israel has used archeological excavations as a pretext for territorial claims in the West Bank and Gaza, and has removed historical artifacts such as a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic of King David, which today decorates the synagogue section of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Archeology is sensitive [in Palestine] because objects have been stolen in the past.
"Archeology is sensitive [in Palestine] because objects have been stolen in the past," Chiappone-Lucchesi said, emphasising that not accepting international help could lead to irreversible damage to the ancient statue. "It's a marvelous find, but you need to know what to do with it. If not, it's a way of destroying it indirectly."
Gaza's past and future
According to Naim, archeological discoveries and history have less value for people in Gaza due to years of conflict and siege. "If you live here in Gaza and every ten years you build a new house because of war, you lose the appreciation for heritage," he said.
But Alotol disagrees. Gaza has been a vital crossing point from North Africa to the Levant and Asia, and is home to ruins left by ancient Egyptians, Philistines, Romans, Byzantines and Crusaders. He said protection of historical artifacts is also a way of preserving Palestinian existence.
"If they don't care about our past, they will not succeed in making a future," he said. "The armed conflict [with Israel] affects everything, but it's not the only thing in our lives. There are many meanings of fighting - it's not only a political issue. We can fight through our pencil, our heritage and our culture."
Alotol added that Gaza could have a great future in tourism if or when the Israeli and Egyptian blockades on Gaza are lifted. For now, though, he fears that Apollo will become yet another victim in an ongoing political battle.