(CNN) — An incident in which vandals apparently smeared red pigment across a famous white cliff on the island of Sicily has been condemned as "cowardly" by local officials.
An investigation has been launched after the Scala dei Turchi, or Turks' Steps -- a distinctive cascade of marl limestone rock jutting out of the Mediterranean on the island's southwest coast -- were allegedly targeted overnight between January 7 and 8.
Photos released by the police show streaks of red running down the slopes of the rocks, which are a popular tourist attraction and, according to legend, were once a landing site for Saracen or Arabic sailors.
"The splendid white marl cliff of the Scala dei Turchi, in the Agrigento area, an attraction for visitors from all over the world, has been shamefully defaced," Sicily's president, Nello Musumeci, wrote on Facebook.
The cliffs are a popular tourist spot.
Carabinieri of Agrigento
"We condemn the authors of this cowardly gesture, which constitutes an outrage not only to a landscape asset of rare beauty but also to the image of our island."
Major Marco La Rovere, in charge of the investigation as head of nearby Agrigento's Carabinieri police department said what appeared to be paint was actually red oxide powder, commonly used to make building plaster.
"With the humidity and the seawater, the oxide powder melted," La Rovere explained.
Volunteers and city technicians with water pumps were able to remove the oxide the following day, La Rovere says, adding that investigators were confident security camera footage would reveal the identity of those behind the incident.