The Break-In at Cairo's Prized Museum

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Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

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

The break-in at Cairo's Egyptian Museum could have been a disaster of historic proportions, a repeat of the rape of Baghdad's multi-millennial heritage after Iraq's equivalent museum was looted in 2003. It wasn't. But only thanks to sheer dumb luck.

On Friday, Egypt's government declared a 6 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew. The much detested riot police, who had fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters all day, suddenly withdrew from the streets at around the start of the curfew, including from their positions guarding Cairo's famed antiquities museum in the heart of the capital, on Tahrir Square, which is the epicenter of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Immediately, Egypt became a police state without police.

The museum had been closed all day because of the street demonstrations, but after virtually all police abandoned their posts, "people began to enter the museum," says Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities department. They climbed over walls, forced open doors and entered the museum's vast souvenir shop. "I'm glad that those people were idiots," Hawass told TIME. "They looted the museum shop. Thank God they thought that the museum shop was the museum."

The Egyptian Museum itself is extraordinary, the repository of many of the country's greatest ancient treasures, including those from Tutankhamun's tomb, which take up nearly half of the second floor. It's an obligatory stop for virtually every tourist; thousands each day gape at Tut's exquisite golden death mask — displayed in a special room along with two of his three golden coffins and other pharaonic jewelry — and wander through a darkened gallery displaying a number of royal mummies. Elsewhere, there are stone statues of pharaohs and ancient Egyptian gods that reach heights of 20 ft. or more; intricately painted sarcophagi; papyri; brilliant blue faience animals and delicate glass objects; even mundane household objects made of wood or clay. Also on display is a 5,000-year-old stone carving known as the Palette of Narmer: not only does it feature one of the oldest known hieroglyphic inscriptions, but it is thought to depict the unification of upper and lower Egypt under the first pharaoh, Narmer.

While many of the intruders were dazzled by the souvenir shop, a few others knew there was more to the museum. Nine of them apparently realized that the real treasures were elsewhere. They entered a room containing artifacts dating back to 500 B.C. The intruders broke into some 13 glass panel display cases as well as one case in the Tutankahmun exhibition. Hawass did not give TIME permission to view the destruction in the museum, which has been shut for the duration of the crisis. But video footage from several Arabic satellite networks, including al-Arabiya, showed shards of glass littering the floor and several artifacts carelessly tossed around, some resting on splinters, others haning out of display cases. "They were looking for gold," Hawass told TIME, just like the grave robbers of old.

The military, which has taken over security duties throughout Cairo and in many other cities, did not arrive on the scene until 10 p.m. In the meantime, ordinary Cairenes, aware of the security vacuum, flocked to protect the museum. "That was wonderful," says Hawass. "The Cairo museum is like the place for our identity. If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe."

The citizens, as well as three police officers who refused to leave their posts, apprehended the nine alleged culprits as they tried to flee the museum with their loot, including two mummy skulls and a statue of Isis. Hawass says that nothing is missing from the museum although about 100 items were damaged — though not irreparably. "They're easy to restore," he says.

The military is now securing the vast salmon-colored building and preventing onlookers from loitering in its vicinity. Built in 1902, the museum, until a decade or two ago, was anything but state of the art. It was dim and dusty, and a visitor would need a flashlight to read the faded, flyspecked labels. A new facility, the Grand Egyptian Museum — which is intended to hold many of the collection's highlights, including Tut's treasure — is currently under construction near the Pyramids at Giza. It is supposed to be finished in 2013.

Hawass says he expects the current museum to reopen in a few days. He knows that the episode could have had a very different ending. "Thank God they did not know where the gold is, because if they knew about the jewelry room, this could have been a disaster." Just ask the director of the Iraqi museum.

With reporting by Andrea Dorfman/New York