Zeus statue in Istanbul Archaeology Museum, 2006
(photo by Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons)
It would have been a day much like any other in Gaza towards the end of the summer in 1879: hot, rainless, cloudless. Local workers were quarrying stone in one of the sand hills south of the city, as they often did. They would find antiquities periodically, usually without attention, selling them or throwing them away. But none of that would have prepared them for the over-life-sized marble statue, preserved to a height of 10 feet, they found lying in the sand on this day. The sculpture depicted a seated figure with its left arm and legs sawn off, the right arm broken at the elbow – Zeus, though no one would have known this yet. News of the find spread quickly. An English-language newspaper in Constantinople, the Commercial Advertiser (remember, Gaza was then part of the Ottoman Empire), carried a notice, picked up soon after by the New York Herald. “Discovery of a Colossal God of the Philistines at Gaza,” the headline proclaimed; and the article boasted the report of what it claimed was an Arab eyewitness. Via the Herald, the report was soon carried in papers throughout the English-speaking world (and beyond) – from the Aberystwith Observer to the Ouachita Telegraph to the Wallaroo Times and Mining Journal. The Pasha of Jerusalem, whose administrative territory for the Ottomans included Gaza, heard too – he sent soldiers to guard the statue, which legally belonged to Sultan in Constantinople.
This much is certain. Additional details of the later (mis)adventures of the statue are harder to confirm, but two complementary accounts plausibly fill in some gaps.1 The Rev. Henry R. Coleman saw the statue in July 1880 while it sat in a Muslim cemetery in Gaza itself. Only in April had the authorities begun to move the sculpture, and in three months it traveled only five miles. As it was, it took 300 fellahin (peasants) and a special wagon constructed on the spot to transport the statue this far. By November the statue had made it to the Jaffa pier, where Chevarrier the French vice-consul saw it. And there it sat, more than a year after its discovery, as the Austrian commander who was to take the statue by ship to Constantinople refused, out of fear of sinking from its weight (estimated at over 6 tons).
Discrepancies and confusion
“This information . . . certainly requires correction, so that false information about the statue does not come into circulation.” So worried biblical scholar Hermann Guthe in Leipzig. Guthe was concerned about the Arab eyewitness’s incorrect description of the gesture of the left arm – which, as it was entirely missing, had no gesture – but he could have been writing about any number of false rumors. The same Arab eyewitness reportedly claimed that the statue was 15 feet high, when in fact the preserved portion is 10 feet. Without a good image of the statue, its identity was the subject of wild guesses: Baal, the god Dagon, an Assyrian monument commemorating their conquest of Palestine. “Others are at liberty to claim it to be a heroic statue of Samson . . . while others may regard it as the petrified body of Goliath of Gath if they choose.”2
Sketches of the statue by Murad (in Guthe 1879), Conder (1882), and Mendel (Catalogue des sculptures, tome 2, 1914)
Then there was the matter of the stone quarriers’ reaction. In 1882, pioneering surveyor Claude Conder wrote about it in a report from Constantinople, where he was visiting the Imperial Museum and saw the statue.3 Conder claimed that the workers who discovered the statue immediately began to attack it. (He believed they had damaged the face, but that the missing limbs of the statue had been broken off when discovered.) The statue was saved only through the efforts of Rev. W. Shapira, who convinced the Pasha of Jerusalem to have soldiers guard the site. In Conder’s story the motivation of the Arab workers to mutilate the statue is left unclear, but a reader in 1882 probably would have filled it in: the Muslims of Gaza were legendary for their “fanaticism”. The Rev. W. Shapira of Conder’s tale is Alexander William Schapira, a Russian Jew who was baptized at 21 in Kishinev, spent time as a clergyman in England, and served as a missionary in Gaza (and, at other times in his life, in Sierra Leone and Australia). Schapira was praised in missionary circles for his work with local schools and the medical dispensary (through which he evangelized in Gaza) and for reportedly ending the slave trade there. Accounts of visiting missionaries and other believers routinely refer to the “fanatical” Muslims of Gaza, their low morals – including their drinking – and Schapira’s supposed positive effect on them.4 Schapira himself spread stories of the Gazans’ “abuses and insults,” stones, and beatings reported to him upon his arrival in Beirut, before even reaching Palestine, in a letter published in 1879.5 In fact, Conder had described the “native peasantry” of Palestine as a whole as “brutally ignorant, fanatical, and, above all, inveterate liars.”6 So it is not surprising that the widely-shared Commercial Advertiser report states clearly what Conder seems to imply: the Pasha placed a guard to “prevent any injury by the fanatics of Gaza”.
A very different version, however, is provided by the French journalist Joseph Reinach.7 In Reinach’s tale we read that, on finding the statue, the workmen immediately contacted a Greek merchant in Gaza and sold it to him for 20 pounds. After he had paid them the money, the Pasha of Jerusalem heard of the discovery and placed a guard (there is no mention of Schapira in this story). However, the workmen refused to repay the merchant, ultimately returning his money only under threat of incarceration. Nowhere does Reinach describe or even hint at intentional damage to the statue. The Pasha, meanwhile, is portrayed as focused on selling the statue: he had already received an offer from the Prussian consul in Jerusalem, and Reinach urges the French not to lose out.
Each of these stories trades on a stereotype of Arabs: either as violent and fanatical or as greedy. Both are probably exaggerated, but in reality Reinach’s is probably closer to correct – it is supported by a first-hand account edited by Guthe. This is ironic, since that first-hand account – the most detailed and probably the most reliable report on the discovery of the statue – comes (indirectly) via a Baron von Münchhausen. In response to Guthe’s request for more information, Münchhausen had sent an Armenian, George Murad, nephew and secretary of the German vice-consul, to Gaza. Besides inspecting the statue first-hand, Murad interviewed someone who identified himself as Michael Basale, the man in Gaza to whom the workmen sold the statue.
In that account, though, there is no mention of incarceration or the refusal to repay. Guthe does mention that the Germans, English, Americans, and French were all interested in the statue, and that there was an offer of 200 Turkish pounds for the statue from an unknown source. But the Pasha had already been instructed by Constantinople by December 1879 that the statue should be sent there. After all, Ottoman antiquities laws – the latest enacted in 1874 – stated that such finds were property of the state. Apparently not everyone knew of such things, however: in April 1881 – by which point the statue was apparently already in Constantinople – rumors about offers for the statue were still being discussed. At that time, the Baltimore papers reported that John Baldwin Hay, former U.S. consul-general to Beirut, had met with Mayor Latrobe to advise him that a “statue of Baal” from Gaza could be obtained for one of Baltimore’s parks for a low price. Hay claimed to have already been offered the statue for $50. The mayor indicated that the city would not be interested in the statue due to the high cost of delivering it. Instead he suggested the Smithsonian might be, since the government could transport it cheaply on a “returning war vessel.”8
There is so much confusion about the find that even the identification of the site is unclear. In 1882 Conder identified it matter-of-factly as Tell el-Ajjul, now known to be an important Bronze Age site, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) southwest of Gaza. Scholarship on the statue has nearly universally claimed its provenance as Ajjul, almost always citing Conder – probably because Conder’s article was widely circulated when reprinted in the Survey of Western Palestine Memoirs the following year.9 But we should remember that there are four independent accounts from 1879: the Commercial Advertiser report; a brief letter in the 1880 Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement from Dr. Thomas J. Chaplin (director of the British Hospital for the Jews in Jerusalem, in service of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews); Guthe’s edited article; and Joseph Reinach’s piece. Reinach is the only one to name the site where the statue was found, and he names it as “Tell-el-Ajoul”. But it is not clear whether Conder’s source is independent of Reinach; Conder was writing over two years after the statue was found, and was not in Palestine at the time of the discovery. And Ajjul does not fit the locational information given in independent accounts: they generally agree that the site was an hour and a half from Gaza and near the seacoast, and Guthe’s report adds it was just south of Wadi Gaza (Nahal Besor). Ajjul is closer to Gaza, on the north of the wadi (that is, a seasonal river or stream), and over a mile from the coast. In fact, there seems to have been widespread confusion about the exact location of Ajjul, at least until the Palestine Exploration Fund published the Survey of Western Palestine Memoirs and map in the early 1880s.10
|Survey of Western Palestine map, 1880 (click to enlarge)|
|Musil's map (Karte von Arabia Petraea), 1907|
Meanwhile, in 1886 German-American engineer Gottlieb Schumacher made an excursion on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund to the Gaza region, where he was told by several people that the statue had in fact been found at a different site, a mile to the west of Ajjul and on the south side of Wadi Gaza, which they called Tell en Keiz (the same as the Survey of Western Palestine’s Tell Nujeid).11 Twenty years later, Alois Musil visited the site, which he called Tell en-Nḳêd (Tell en-Nuqeid), noting that it had been used as a quarry and that a statue had been found there.12 This site fits the locational information (distance from Gaza, south of Wadi Gaza, close to the seashore). Schumacher also noted trenches on the top of the site, which would fit quarrying activity, while Ajjul showed no such signs. Finally, by the time the British Survey of Palestine surveyed the area during the 1920s, the site was known as Tell eṣ-Ṣanam – ṣanam being Arabic for “idol”.13 In other words, at some point after the Zeus statue was discovered, the local residents started calling the site “the mound of the idol”.14
|Survey of Palestine map, 1931 (click to enlarge)|
Pivotal moments and scholarly myths
The traditional narrative in the archaeology of Israel/Palestine is that neither the imperial Ottoman authorities nor local residents were much interested in antiquities.15 Pride of place is given to the British Mandate for organizing the Department of Antiquities, enacting antiquities laws, and for establishing a national museum. But this is a scholarly myth. We find that the people of Palestine were often very interested in the past of their land and its material remains.16 The Ottoman administration, meanwhile, enacted a series of antiquities laws starting in 1869.17 They founded the Imperial Museum in Constantinople, and later set up a museum in Palestine as well.18 Conder’s visit to the Imperial Museum coincides with the beginning of the tenure of Osman Hamdi Bey, its first Turkish director. He paints a picture of chaos to which Hamdi succeeded: no museum catalogue; lack of provenance or other basic information in many cases; statue fragments organized by body part. We as readers might be tempted to see this as an Orientalist characterization, but Conder’s presentation clearly favors the Turkish Hamdi at the expense of his German predecessor. Hamdi is shown as concerned with compliance with antiquities law and ensuring that finds in provinces like Palestine were brought to the museum in Constantinople. “I had great satisfaction,” Conder says, “in explaining to him that the Society by which I was sent out [the Palestine Exploration Fund] had never transgressed in this respect since the regulations were first promulgated in 1874” – though he says nothing about following the earlier law of 1869. In fact, privately the Palestine Exploration Fund expressed a very different reality. As its secretary Walter Besant wrote to the British consul in Jerusalem around 1874, “we have broken the law for six years at least, and we shall go on breaking it, until we are stopped, with every coin we bring away from the place.”19 Perhaps the narrative of Ottoman indifference to antiquities was a way for Western scholars and institutions to justify their ignoring Ottoman regulations.
Examples of the "seated Zeus" statue type,
allowing a reconstruction of the complete Gaza Zeus
(Salomon Reinach, Répertoire de la statuaire grecque et romaine, Tome 2 vol. 1, 1897)
While at the museum, Conder looked for material from the Levant that he knew. He sketched the Gaza Zeus “from the original on the porch of the museum.” But otherwise Conder only recognized the Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions known as the “Hamath stones.” His impression is confirmed by the summary catalogue of the Imperial Museum’s collection published that same year by Salomon Reinach (Joseph’s brother), soon to become a prominent classical archaeologist.20 The few other Levantine objects – at least of those objects for which provenance was known – are all from Syria and Lebanon: a statue from Baalbek, a bust from Palmyra, two lead sarcophagus fragments from Homs, a Phoenician sarcophagus from brought from “Syria.” Most artifacts are from Anatolia (Turkey), northern Africa, or Cyprus. Conder refers to the absence of the boundary stones of Gezer, seized in 1874 by the governor of Jerusalem, but unknown to Hamdi Bey. Hamdi was interested in the famous Siloam Inscription, found about the same time as the Gaza statue, but it would not reach the Imperial Museum for several more years. It seems that the Gaza Zeus may have been the first object from Palestine to become part of the Imperial Museum collection. Conder’s article provides a brief but fascinating glance at the Imperial Museum at exactly this time – a pivotal moment both for Palestinian antiquities entering the museum and for its stewardship under Hamdi Bey.
Or was it? Ottoman historian Edhem Eldem has pointed out how, even among scholars aware of and specializing in Ottoman interest in antiquities, there has been an exaggerated focus on Osman Hamdi Bey. This cult of personality has had a distorting effect: scholars fail to acknowledge the gradually increasing Ottoman interest in antiquities over the course of the nineteenth century. They routinely miss the 1869 antiquities law, claiming the 1874 regulation to be the first. These trends in scholarship can be traced in this very report from Conder about the Imperial Museum. Here, as in so many other ways, Claude Conder was a true pioneer in the field.
1 Rob Morris, “The Stone Idol of Gaza,” Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1880, p.7; “Sciences, Littérature, Beaux-Arts,” Journal officiel de la République Française 12 no. 328 (November 30, 1880): 11731.
2 From a column shared in several papers; the earliest example I can find is in The Commonwealth (Topeka, KS), November 8, 1879, p. 2. The petrified body of Goliath is a reference to the Cardiff Giant and various copycat hoaxes. See Mark Rose, “When Giants Roamed the Earth,” Archaeology 58 no. 6 (November/December 2005).
3 Claude Conder, “Notes from Constantinople,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1882: 147-149.
4 Samuel Müller, “A Visit to Sharon and Philistia. Part IV.—Gaza and Beit Jebrin” (trans. A.G. Weld), Missionary Life vol. 12 (1881): 440; Louisa H.H. Tristram, “The Land of the Philistines, with a Sunday at Gaza,” The Church-Worker, vol. 1 (1882): 4-5; William Berryman Ridges, My Ramble Through Bible Lands (1886), p. 11.
5 “Gaza: New Work in an Old City,” The Church Missionary Intelligencer and Record n.s. vol. 4 (1879): 155-156.
6 Claude Conder, “The Present Condition of Palestine,” Jewish Chronicle, November 1, 1878, pp. 10-11. Reprinted in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1879: 9. (But Conder graciously adds that “they have qualities which would, if developed, render them a useful population.”)
7 Letter of December 17, 1879 from Gaza, in Revue politique et littéraire, 2nd series, 9 no. 28 (January 10 1880): 667-668. Reprinted in Revue archéologique n.s. 21 no. 39 (1880): 57-58; English summary in “Antiquarian News,” The Antiquary vol. 1 (January-June 1880): 89-90.
8 “Statue of Baal for Baltimore,” Baltimore Sun, April 5,1881, p. 1; “The Statue of Baal for Sale,” Washington Post, April 7, 1881 (from the Baltimore American).
9 Among many others, George Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1894), p. 188; Charles Clermont-Ganneau, “Sur quelques localités de Palestine mentionnées dans la vie de Pierre l’Ibère,” in Etudes d’archéologie orientale, vol. 2, by C. Clermont-Ganneau (1897), p. 13; Martin A. Meyer, History of the City of Gaza (1907), p. 152; Arthur Bernard Cook, Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, vol. 3 pt. 1. (1940), p. 557 (following Reinach); Nelson Glueck, Deities and Dolphins (1965), p. 498; Carol A.M. Glucker, The City of Gaza in the Roman and Byzantine Periods (1987), p. 67; Asher Ovadiah and Sonia Mucznik, “The Zeus from Gaza Re-examined”, Archivo Español de Arqueología 70 (1997): 5.
10 Victor Guérin (Description géographique, historique et archéologique de la Palestine. Judée vol. 2, 1869, p. 213) notes that some maps showed Ajjul south of Wadi Gaza, singling out C.W.M. Van de Velde’s Map of the Holy Land, 1:315,000, Gotha: Justus Perthes (1865). See also Van de Velde, Memoir to Accompany the Map of the Holy Land (1858), p. 53, where he notes “Tell el-’Ajûr [sic], 1 ½ hours S.W. of Gaza, at the entrance and S. of Wady Ghŭzzeh,” among the sites mentioned to him by the Bedouin (in other words, which he did not personally visit). Note the time, position south of the wadi, and position along the coast all match Tell Nuqeid. Charles Warren (“The Plain of Philistia,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1871: 86) describes “Tel Ajur” [sic] as on the coast, at the mouth of Wadi Gaza; immediately above this, he also noted that he found van de Velde’s map “hopelessly in error” for the Gaza region, but “found little chance of correcting it.” Other than Guérin, the only source I have found that appears to place Ajjul correctly before the publication of the Survey of Western Palestine Memoirs is Baedeker, ed., Palaestina und Syrien: Handbuch für Reisende (1875), p. 329 (Eng translation 1876 p. 315): “Tell el-‘Adjûl [‘Ajûl in English transliteration] 1 hr 5 min from Gaza.” As late as 1887, the Franciscan priest Liévin de Hamme (Edouard Colleman) placed it two minutes south of Wadi Gaza and about 1 ½ hours from Gaza in his detailed and valuable travel guide: Liévin de Hamme, Guide-indicateur des sanctuaires et lieux historiques de la Terre-Sante (3rd rev. ed.; 1887), pp. 205-206.
11 Gottlieb Schumacher, “Researches in Southern Palestine,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1886: 177; Map of Western Palestine, 1:63,360, Sheet XIX (London, 1880); Claude R. Conder and Horatio H. Kitchener, The Survey of Western Palestine: Memoirs of the Topography, Orography, Hydrography, and Archaeology, vol. III. Sheets XVII-XXVI, Judaea (1883), p. 254.
12 Alois Musil, Arabia Petraea. II. Edom. Topographischer Reisebericht, pt. 2 (1908), p. 53; also Musil’s map: Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Karte von Arabia Petraea, 1:300,000, 1907. To explain part of the variety of pronunciations of the site’s name, Conder (Tent Work in Palestine; A Record of Discovery and Adventure, vol. 2, 1879, pp. 213-214) reported that, among the Bedouin, qof was pronounced as “jof”. See also Rafael Talmon “19th Century Palestinian Arabic: The Testimony of Western Travellers,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 29 (2004): 216.
13 Survey of Palestine, 1:20,000, Series Topocadastral, Sheet 9-9 Wādi Ghazza (Jaffa, 1931). See also Schedule of Historical Monuments and Sites, Palestine Gazette Extraordinary 1375, Supplement no. 2 (November 24, 1944), p. 1311.
14 As far as I know, the meaning of the site’s name and its connection to the discovery of the statue have been highlighted only by Felix-Marie Abel, “Les confins de la Palestine et de l’Egypte sous les Ptolémées,” Revue Biblique 49 (1940): 69. Other than Abel, scholars who have identified Tell en-Nuqeid/Tell eṣ-Ṣanam as the findspot of the statue include (Musil); Louis-Hugues Vincent, “La Palestine dans les papyrus ptolémaiques de Gerza,” Revue Biblique 29 (1920): 175; W.M.F. Petrie, Ancient Gaza vol. 1 (1931), p. 2; Antoine Duprez, Jésus et les dieux guérisseurs: à propos de Jean, vols. 8-12 (1970), p. 78.
15 As an example, Neil Asher Silberman, Digging for God and Country (1982), 154-155. Many sources present Ottoman authorities only as an occasional nuisance to the brave explorers and excavators, or ignore them entirely.
16 See, for example, Louis Fishman, “The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables versus the Ottoman Administration,” Journal of Palestine Studies 34 no. 3 (Spring 2005): 6-22.
17 The texts of the 1869 and 1874 antiquities laws were published by Grégoire Aristarchi (Bey), Législation ottomane, pt. 3. Droit administratif (1874), pp. 161-167. For a useful summary of Ottoman antiquities laws of 1869, 1874, 1884, and 1906 (last in effect in Turkey until 1973): Sibel Özel, “Under the Turkish Blanket Legislation: The Recovery of Cultural Property Removed from Turkey,” International Journal of Legal Information 38 no. 2 (Summer 2010): Article 10, pp. 178-179.
18 See, for example, Wendy Shaw, Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire (2003); Edhem Eldem, “From Blissful Indifference to Anguished Concern: Ottoman Perceptions of Antiquities, 1799-1869,” in Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914 (ed. Z. Bahrani, Z. Çelik, and E. Eldem; 2011), pp. 281-329; Beatrice St. Laurent with Himmet Taşkömür, “The Imperial Museum of Antiquities in Jerusalem, 1890-1930: An Alternate Narrative,” Jerusalem Quarterly 55 (2013): 6-45.
19 Letter from Walter Besant to Noel Temple Moore, copying Charles Clermont-Ganneau, c. 1874 (Institut de France, Fonds Clermont-Ganneau); quoted in Naomi Shepherd, The Zealous Intruders (1987), p. 219.
20 Salomon Reinach, Catalogue du Musée Impérial d’Antiquités (1882).