Egypt’s Human Chain: The Race to Save the Mummies

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Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the National Museum in central Cairo on January 29, 2011.

Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Civilian vigilantes heroically stepped up Friday to fend off looters trying to poach Egypt’s most prized artifacts.

Egypt’s cultural identity is formed in large part by the country’s long history of mummification, and King Tut is the most prominent member of that club. When Tut’s tomb was discovered in the 1920s, the priceless treasures inside were transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for admiration from the public. The museum has become a haven for sarcophagi and the artifacts contained in their tombs. But after guards abandoned their posts during Cairo’s weekend unrest, a group of looters managed to breach the mummies’ resting space.

(More on See TIME’s exclusive photos of the Egyptian turmoil.)

More than 50 thieves broke in, reports the New York Daily News, but many made it no further than the gift shop. Nine looters headed past the knockoffs to find the true treasure. “They were looking for gold,” Egypt’s antiquities minister Zahi Hawass told TIME, and they weren’t afraid to destroy what was in their path in order to find it. They smashed 13 display cases, including one in the King Tut exhibit. And in a final insult to the country’s culture, the looters ripped the heads off two mummies.

But the nine didn’t make it far with their plunder – not even outside the building – before they were apprehended by a citizen’s brigade. A group of young Egyptians, some armed with batons stolen from police, created a human chain at the museum’s gate to prevent the thieves from running off into the night. Fortunately, all artifacts were recovered, and Hawass is thankful the 100 or so damaged goods are reparable.

(More on See video from Tahrir Square, Cairo.)

But he’s most appreciative of the young people who helped tackle the looters. “They know this is their cultural heritage,” Hawass told the Daily News.  It’s comforting to see that the young people fighting for their country’s future are duly concerned with its past.

TIME’s Rania Abouzeid has the full story on what happened to the treasures and an interview with Hawass.