Amid the deadly chaos that has erupted in Egypt, the country's cultural heritage took a hit last week when looters ransacked the archaeological museum in the town of Mallawi.
Located about 190 miles (300 kilometers) south of Cairo, the museum was opened in 1963 to showcase the finds from excavations at nearby sites.
"The museum contained irreplaceable artifacts, many not yet studied," says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "The looting leaves enormous gaps in our understanding of ancient Egyptian religious and funerary rites."
Housed in a modest, two-story building, the museum's galleries displayed a wide range of objects—animal mummies, votive statues, religious offerings, brightly painted wooden coffins, necklaces of stone beads, a ritual rattle known as a sistrum, funerary masks, amulets, statues from tombs, stone trays for sacred oils, jars that once held the internal organs of an Egyptian now long dead—all of which had survived in remarkably good condition for more than 2,000 years.
According to local news reports, looters—as yet unidentified—broke into the museum while supporters of recently deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi were holding a sit-in protest in the museum's garden. From the 1,089 artifacts on exhibit, an estimated 1,050 were stolen.
After the looters had departed, gangs of what one source calls "local bad boys" entered the building and began to burn and smash what was left.
In the photo shown here, debris from the rampage surrounds large artifacts that were too bulky to haul off.
This incident is just the latest of countless attacks on Egypt's archaeological riches since the 2011 revolution.
During the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, looters broke into the Egyptian Museum—home of one of the world's foremost archaeological collections—and made off with about 50 artifacts. Many are still missing.
The country's continuing turmoil has led to lax security at archaeological sites and storerooms throughout the country, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Reports of looting have surfaced everywhere from Abu Rawash and Abusir to El Hibeh and Luxor.
Looting is certainly not a new phenomenon in Egypt. It was as lucrative in antiquity as it is today. Almost as soon as the paint was dry in the tombs of the rich and powerful, robbers would break in and grab what wealth they could. Even the tomb of King Tut was a target. Experts believe looters got in twice, stuffed their pockets, and left jewelry strewn along the exit passage as they fled from guards.
What's different today is the scale—selling antiquities is a global business, and it's booming.
To help warn dealers and collectors away from the Mallawi loot, Egyptologists are turning to social media to publicize the objects as quickly as possible. A group on Facebook called Egypt's Heritage Task Force is leading the effort. Their page includes a growing collection of artifact photos sent in by people who visited the museum in recent years. As of this morning it showed almost 900 images.
Meanwhile, Egyptian officials have catalogued what has been lost and sent the list to UNESCO for publication in Arabic and English on its website. They are now salvaging what they can from the ruined galleries and encouraging looters to return priceless treasures that testify to the glory of ancient Egypt and the infinite possibilities of human creativity.