The Apollo of Gaza: An Archaeological Mystery

An archaeological mystery unfolds when a statue of Apollo is discovered off the coast of Gaza but suddenly disappears.

In 2013, a fisherman in Gaza saw the shape of a man buried in shallow waters.

He thought it was someone who had drowned. But upon closer inspection, it was a statue – one so heavy it capsized his boat and broke the tow ropes when he first tried to pull it up.

Eventually he got it to shore, then home. Along the way, he realised he might have something valuable on his hands – something that needed to be hidden until he could figure out how to sell it.

But just weeks after it was discovered the statue – which depicted Apollo, the god of arts, beauty and prophecy – vanished, causing all sorts of speculation.

Was it taken hostage by armed groups, resold to international traffickers of art, or destroyed? Was it in the hands of the government or citizens?

And was the statue really an ancient treasure or just a well-crafted sham?

The first time I saw Apollo, a feeling of happiness swept over me ... It's almost like someone, a man, stands before us, looking us in the eye

by Heyam Al-Bitar, archaeologist, Gaza's Ministry of Antiquities

For Jean-Baptiste Humbert, a priest and archaeologist with the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem, the statue remains ever elusive.

“An impenetrable barrier separates me from the Apollo. I’ve only seen it in photographs or gotten calls about it,” he says. “The Apollo might as well be on another planet. Since 2014, I have not been able to visit Gaza.”

Heyam al-Bitar, an archaeologist with Gaza’s Ministry of Antiquities, has seen it in person. She says she briefly appraised it and was astounded by the discovery.

“The first time I saw Apollo, a feeling of happiness swept over me,” she says. “It’s almost like someone, a man, stands before us, looking us in the eye, with his taut body and beautiful muscles, adopting his well-known posture and distinctive hand gesture.”

But she was also pained by its condition; the bronze was greenish and corroded from the saltwater and she viewed its restoration as a race against time. “It was very upsetting. I saw it as an injured person in need of urgent medical attention,” she says.

And as archaeologists and museum staff outside of the territory show interest in the statue, which may date back to 200 BC, some are wary of it being taken from Gazan soil, should it resurface.

“This statue belongs to the Palestinian people,” says Jawdat Khoudary, an archaeological relics collector. “The statue must be displayed in a location that befits its aesthetic and historical importance.”

The Apollo of Gaza traces the statue’s mysterious origins, filming those who had seen it, those who had heard of it, and those still wanting it in their grasp.

Witness - The Apollo of Gaza - DO NOT USE
“The Apollo … has passed into a shadowy world. The Ministry of Antiquities never mentions it. You will not see Apollo. It is impossible,” says Fadel al-Otol, an archaeological relics restorer [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]



By Nicolas Wadimoff

When I learned of the discovery (and equally sudden disappearance) of the Apollo of Gaza, I immediately wondered about the broader implications of this astonishing find.

For me, going on the trail of the Apollo was a way into the history of, not just an entire region, but also of the men and women who continue to create that history to this very day.

Shot in Gaza and Jerusalem, The Apollo of Gaza plays out like an archaeological thriller. The film tracks down those who have laid eyes on or heard of this national treasure, the stuff of which dreams are made – and soon, highly coveted. Was it just the work of forgers, or a gift from the gods to a Palestinian people desperately in need of hope?

What became of this mysterious statue with its potentially immense historical value?

Between those driven by purely commercial interests and those motivated by historical preservation and a love of art, an intense covert war was waged over the statue, every official and unofficial power apparently locked in a backroom struggle.

The Apollo of Gaza is in part a portrayal of these local and international political rivalries and pretentions. But it is also a reflection on the passage of time and the cyclical nature of history. A history that, for centuries, has witnessed the birth, boom and bust of great civilisations in a part of the world currently plagued by conflict – in this case, the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for which the besieged Gaza Strip continues to pay a heavy price.

As the international media spews out endless images of war and poverty in Gaza, I felt it vital that The Apollo of Gaza focus instead on the region’s lesser-known side.

Here, against all odds, life continues to thrive, irrepressible.

Like a meteor streaking across the sky, the statue of Apollo brings a moment of light and beauty to Gaza, helping restore dignity to its people, revealing a glorious history and fostering pride in a nation too often superseded by its turbulent history.

“Adversity makes you stronger,” says one of the players. Indeed, fleeting though it may have been, the statue’s sudden appearance in the day-to-day torments of life on the strip has unexpectedly helped spark a cultural revival.

In its own way, the enigmatic artwork breathes new life into a neglected, all-but-forgotten history.

For younger generations, the Apollo of Gaza can bridge past and present as it points the way to a brighter future.

Like entrepreneur and collector Jawadat N Khudary, rapturously watching his flowers bloom, the film advocates patience: the sole guarantor of the peace that will surely one day blossom on these forsaken shores – a place abandoned by all except Apollo, the unlikely messenger of the gods, suddenly tossed up by the waves.