Lost for centuries, a bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo mysteriously resurfaced in the Gaza Strip, only to be seized by police and vanish almost immediately from view, Reuters reported on Monday.
A local fisherman says he dragged the 500kg statue from the seabed last August, and carried it home on a donkey cart, unaware of its significance.
After the statue briefly appeared on eBay last year, with a $300,000 price tag - well below its true value, Hamas police seized it and say they are investigating the affair.
Archeologists have not been able to examine the statue first hand, but from what they can tell from released photographs it was cast sometime between the 5th and the 1st century BC, making it at least 2,000 years old.
“It’s unique. In some ways I would say it is priceless. It’s like people asking what is the [value] of the painting La Gioconda [the Mona Lisa] in the Louvre museum,” said Jean-Michel de Tarragon, a historian with the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.
“It’s very, very rare to find a statue which is not in marble or in stone, but in metal,” he told Reuters television.
The archeologist speculated that the true location of where the statue was unearthed was not revealed to avoid arguments over ownership, saying its apparently pristine condition implied it was not found at sea.
“This wasn’t found on the seashore or in the sea … it is very clean. No, it was [found] inland and dry,” he said.
However, Palestinian fisherman Joudat Ghrab tells a different tale.
The 26-year-old told Reuters that he saw a human-like shape lying in shallow waters some 100 meters off the coast, just north of the Egyptian-Gaza border.
He says it took him and his relatives four hours to drag the find ashore.
“I felt it was something gifted to me by God,” Ghrab told Reuters. “My financial situation is very difficult and I am waiting for my reward.”
The discolored greenish-brown figure depicts the youthful, athletic god standing upright on two, muscular legs with one arm outstretched.
Officials at Gaza’s tourism ministry told Reuters the statue would not be shown to the public until a criminal investigation into who tried to sell it on eBay was completed.
However, the ministry’s director of archaeology, Ahmed al-Bursh, said he had seen the statue promised that Ghrab would receive a reward.
“It is a precious treasure, an important archaeological discovery,” said Bursh.
“International institutions have also contacted us and have offered to help with the repair process,” he said, adding that the Louvre in Paris wanted to exhibit it on loan.
Some 5,000 years of history can be found beneath the sands of the area, which was ruled by ancient Egyptians, Philistines, Romans, Byzantines and crusaders at various times.