As she surveyed the damage inside Egypt's Mallawi National Museum last summer, Dr. Monica Hanna knew she was in danger. The archaeologist had first visited as a girl and remembered sarcophagi painted with golden faces, shimmering amulets from the time of pharaohs, and ornate jars that once held the internal organs of royals. Now, however, she saw only floors covered with shattered glass from toppled display cases, splintered wood coffins, toppled statues, and a mummy's charred remains.
Three days earlier, looters had targeted the museum in what turned out to be the most damaging attack on an Egyptian cultural institution in recent history. An incredible 1,050 of 1,089 artifacts on display were stolen. Police weren't the first to the scene. Hanna was.
As she attempted to salvage what she could, she found teens defacing artifacts. They carried guns, and Hanna knew looters had already killed one museum employee. But when she saw the boys attempt to set another mummy on fire, she intervened.
"Thinking about it now, I feel scared — but when I was there, it was different," Hanna told VICE News. "That museum is special to me because it's close to my father's home. I felt quite territorial about it."
Soon after she dealt with the teens, bullets began to sing through the museum's windows — snipers on a nearby rooftop had opened fire. Hanna and the photographer she was with ducked out of sight, but continued their work. In all, they retrieved 42 artifacts the vandals hadn't stolen, and several damaged items in need of repair. The next day, Hanna returned to the museum with the antiquities police, who told her they'd been too busy combating supporters of President Mohamed Morsi to protect the museum. As the police exchanged fire with the snipers, Hanna and her small team rescued five sarcophagi, two ibis mummies, and countless fragments of other artifacts.
"I don't think the decision makers in Egypt know how dire an issue this is," Hanna said. "Part of finding a solution is exposing the problem."
The destruction of the museum was one of many attacks on Egypt's historical treasures since the revolution began in 2011. The subsequent turmoil has created a security vacuum that has been disastrous for the country's antiquities, as armed gangs systematically loot museums and archaeological sites.
'Egypt's heritage has survived for thousands of years. It's alarming so much of it is being destroyed in such a short period of time.'
Theft of cultural treasures is common during violent conflict. The Colosseum was financed with loot the Romans stole from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Thousands of years later, the Nazis pilfered works of art throughout Europe; the Allied response inspired the recent George Clooney movie The Monuments Men, which told the story of a group of art historians and curators who retrieved and protected the art Hitler stole.
That movie was not good, but the actual Monuments Men mirror the cadre of heritage activists risking their lives to salvage artifacts and raise awareness of illegal digging and looting. Egypt's Heritage Task Force, a group Hanna co-founded, uses social media to document heritage crime — which is taking place not only in Egypt, but all over the Middle East.
Though Hanna escaped unscathed, others — like the employee killed at the Mallawi National Museum — have been less fortunate. In Syria, Yahya Ibrahim guarded Bosra's ancient ruins, one of the world's best-preserved Roman amphitheaters. In January, armed militants broke into his office and demanded he not go to work. They shot and killed him when he refused.
"He went to work and insisted to do his duty regardless of any political situation and in spite of their threats," said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities chief. UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, has placed all six of Syria's world heritage sites, including Bosra, on an endangered list.
"We're seeing one of the biggest losses of cultural heritage in modern time," said Stefano De Caro, director-general of ICCROM, a conservation arm of UNESCO. "We can't solve this problem alone — we need people on the ground who are prepared to handle crises when they arise."
People like Yasmine El Dorghamy. She arrived at the ruins of the Institut d'Égypte in December 2011 to find the charred pages of priceless books, manuscripts, atlases inside the smoldering building. The Cairo research center, established by Napoleon in 1798, had been set ablaze during clashes in Tahrir Square. As it burned, many Egyptians entered the building and rescued thousands of books. Still, most of the collection was reduced to smoldering debris.
Dorghamy, editor of the heritage magazine Al Rawi, began sifting through the blackened remnants with a cohort of volunteers, moving the salvageable documents to trucks. Gunfire erupted intermittently, spillover from Tahrir's deadly protests.
"There were huge rocks flying over my head," Dorghamy said. "If one of them would have hit me, it might have killed me. A lot of people were severely injured."
Recognizing the importance of heritage activists, international organizations offer instructional workshops on how to handle, package, and store damaged antiquities. Abdel Hamid El Shareif began taking a workshop from ICCROM in 2011 after he helped evacuate antiquities from an area near the Pyramid of Giza and realized those leading the effort lacked proper training. A year later, he left his job to start the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Team, a non-profit group that trains volunteers and officials in the Ministry of Antiquities how to respond to heritage emergencies.
"The country's heritage has survived for thousands of years," Shareif told VICE News. "It's alarming so much of it is being destroyed in such a short period of time."
On the morning of January 24, Shareif hung up after a call from a policeman and got ready to leave in a hurry. Elsewhere in Cairo, Hanna and Dorghamy received similar calls from distressed colleagues and bolted out their doors, hoping the situation wasn't as dire as they'd been told: A truck, packed with 500 kilograms of TNT, had just exploded outside the Museum of Islamic Art.
"There was talk of a second bomb going off near the museum," Dorghamy said. "But I didn't care, I went straight to the site."
The bomb, meant to damage Cairo’s police headquarters across the street, destroyed a trove of the 111-year-old museum's priceless artifacts, a cultural catastrophe Hanna called a "great loss" for Egypt and the world.
Shareif's voice trembled in anger as he directed his rescue unit in the museum, which houses one of the world's richest collections of Islamic art. Out of 1,471 objects, 74 were destroyed and 90 damaged, including wooden mihrabs, calligraphy-embellished lamps, and centuries-old ceramics. His team wrapped up the most vulnerable artifacts and put them in storage.
Meanwhile, Hanna and Dorghamy purchased cardboard boxes, helmets to shield people from falling debris, and rubber gloves to handle broken glass. Working together, they were able to mitigate the damage inflicted by the blast.
"Some ask, 'People are dying — why are you worrying about art?'" said Omneya Abdel Barr, a conservation architect who worked with Shareif's team. "I tell them, 'A day will come when we restore democracy. Do you want to wait until then and discover you've lost your heritage?'"