By Jeffrey Levin

In his 1954 book, Egyptian Painting, Arpag Mekhitarian opened with both praise and a lament. "The Pharaonic régime," he wrote, "was one of the longest in Antiquity and throughout the period artists of the Nile Valley produced indisputable masterpieces. The pity is that relatively few have escaped intact the ravages of men and time."

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In particular, Mr. Mekhitarian cited the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, the ancient burial grounds of Thebes near Luxor in Upper Egypt. There, he said, "...dozens of square yards of inscriptions and depictions of scenes of the after-life which might have thrown much light on the Egyptian religion are irrevocably lost. Most tragic of all is the predicament of the tomb of Queen Nefertari, wife of that famous king Rameses II. Here the superb paintings on modeled stucco which until the recent war delighted the eyes of archaeologists, art historians and tourists alike, are now in such a precarious state that their total loss may well be a matter of only a few years."

For Mr. Mekhitarian, the inexorable fate that awaited the "magnificent" painted tomb of Nefertari was an inglorious one. "It is gradually disintegrating," he concluded, "and will soon have crumbled into dust." Nearly four decades later, the Nefertari wall paintings are anything but dust.

Over the last six years an international team of scientists and conservators have labored in the tomb with extraordinary dedication and craft to preserve the remaining images of the ancient Egyptian queen making offerings to the gods and journeying from temporal to immortal life. When the team's work was completed this spring, the success of their effort was apparent even to the untrained eye.

The dust is gone, the plaster walls are once again secure, and the vivid shades of red, blue, yellow, and green, complemented by a striking use of black and white, have reemerged. Today, Nefertari's elegant figure still adorns her tomb as it has for 32 centuries.

The Endangered Queen

She had many official titles: "the Great Royal Wife," "the Lady of Two Lands," "the Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt," and even "God's wife." She had other more endearing epithets: "Lady of Charm," "Sweet of Love," "Rich of Praise."

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For over twenty years Nefertari was the beloved queen of Rameses II, the 19th dynasty pharaoh whose reign marked a peak in Egyptian imperial power. The high regard in which the pharaoh held his chief consort is evidenced at the small temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia. In an extraordinary act, Rameses dedicated the temple not only to the goddess Hathor but to Nefertari herself. In so doing he bestowed upon his wife the status of a god. She may have been the only Egyptian queen so honored.

Rameses's esteem for his wife was displayed after her death as well as in her life. Mehkitarian was not the only one to believe that the tomb created for her was among the most beautiful to be found in the Theban necropolis. The Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli, who unearthed the tomb in 1904, immediately recognized the exquisite quality of his find. While the tomb was empty of all but several fragments of the queen's pink granite sarcophagus and a few other small artifacts—grave robbers during antiquity had plundered the tomb's treasure—the miraculous wall paintings remained.

Their condition, however, was hardly miraculous. Problems began from the moment of their creation. Because the tomb's limestone constituted a poor surface for painting, the artisans covered the walls with plaster. The designs for the images were outlined on the plaster, then sculpted in low relief before being painted. As the centuries passed, portions of the plaster detached from the limestone, with some falling completely away. Even in places where the plaster was relatively secure, the pictorial layer had deteriorated.

The damage, so evident when the tomb was first opened, accelerated in the decades that followed. The evidence suggests that most of the painting loss since the tomb's discovery was the result of human carelessness and vandalism. Despite several attempts to save what remained, by the 1980s at least a fifth of the wall paintings had been lost.

The Nefertari Project

In 1985 the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) began discussing how they might preserve this remarkable cultural treasure. As then EAO chairman Dr. Ahmed Kadry put it, Egypt had a "national duty to preserve one of the most beautiful masterpieces of its patrimony."

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According to GCI Director Miguel Angel Corzo, who served as the Institute's Director of Special Projects in the mid-1980s, the EAO was open to the GCI's approach, which involved comprehensive scientific research before treatment.

"So many times what happens is that conservation problems are treated before being studied or analyzed," explains Mr. Corzo. "Because the Nefertari tomb posed a complex problem, the Egyptian authorities felt that our method and philosophy would guarantee that we would thoroughly examine the problem before coming up with schemes to solve it."

Under the leadership of Dr. Kadry and then-GCI Director Luis Monreal, the EAO-GCI Nefertari Conservation Project began in 1986. A year of scientific analysis was conducted which addressed the geologic, hydrologic, climatologic, microbal, and microfloral status of the tomb. Chemical, spectrographic, and x-ray diffraction tests of all materials, especially plasters, pigments, and salts, were also performed.

The research confirmed the main cause of the paintings' long-term deterioration—the presence in the limestone and plaster of sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt. The salts absorb moisture, and when the moisture evaporates the salts crystalize. In some places in the tomb, salt encrustations had eroded the paint on the surface, turning it to colored dust. In other areas large, hard crystals had formed between the limestone and plaster, pushing the plaster surface away from the rock and destroying its cohesion.

The scientific team concluded that there were several sources of water penetration into the tomb: (1) water introduced through the original plastering of the walls; (2) flooding via the tomb's entrance; (3) rain seepage throughout the rock and through fissures in it; and (4) water vapor from the atmosphere, introduced mainly by visitors.

As the project's scientists proceeded with their work, the conservation team surveyed the entire tomb. Every deterioration problem was identified and mapped. When the survey was completed at the beginning of 1987, emergency conservation work commenced. About 10,000 small strips of fine-grained Japanese mulberry bark paper were applied to cracks and loose plaster fragments to prevent their collapse.

Conservation of the Tomb

Both the emergency treatment and the tomb's final conservation were headed by Professor Paolo Mora and Laura Mora, world renowned conservators with over 40 years experience conserving wall paintings.

Paolo Mora, former Chief Conservator at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome, first visited the tomb in 1962. He was amazed at the aesthetic refinement of the paintings—and moved by a desire to remedy their deteriorated state.

"When a conservator sees something in bad condition," says Mr. Mora, "he has to put it in good condition. This is not only true for paintings. At home when I see that a glass or a dish is broken, I have to put it together. It is a desire to set things right."

With the Nefertari tomb, Mr. Mora "saw immediately that we had to do something. But so many years passed before we did."

The day to "do something" arrived in January 1988. The objective of the conservation program for the tomb was to retain the site's historical integrity. For that reason, the principles of minimal intervention and reversibility of materials were strictly observed. "Our goal," says Mr. Mora, "was to stop deterioration and consolidate what was possible. We did not add color. Nothing. It was cleaning, consolidation, and stop."

The first step was clearing away dust and removing the heavy gauze applied during previous conservation campaigns. Then consolidation work began. Where the paint was flaking or chalky, conservators carefully applied acrylic solutions to bond the paint to the plaster. But the major task was consolidating and reattaching the plaster to the limestone walls. A special mortar comprising local sand and gypsum was mixed with small amounts of water and applied to detaching plaster and to voids in the wall surface. This meticulous process was complicated by the need to remove salt accumulations from both the plaster and the limestone. Cement from past repairs also had to be removed. When all else was done, the paintings were cleaned with a variety of solvents.

Even though the project was conducted only during the cooler months of the year, the work remained arduous and painstaking, performed under difficult conditions. As Miguel Angel Corzo observes, "The reality is that a lot of people spent many hours per day for a total of more than a year and a half cooped up in a small space, in uncomfortable positions, with limited air circulation, working very, very hard."

What Was Achieved

The process of conserving the wall paintings by the Moras and their team of conservators resulted in more than a new life for an irreplaceable artistic monument.

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John Walsh, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum (which, along with the GCI, is mounting a special exhibition on the Nefertari Project in November 1992), points out that the conservation effort also garnered more information about how the wall paintings were created.

"The Moras are two totally practical Italians with a lifetime of getting their hands dirty," says Dr. Walsh. "Their work on Nefertari shows how you can come to a practical understanding of the techniques used by the original artists—and how through understanding those techniques you can help the work of art back towards an appearance that is closer to what was intended. The Moras use science, but even more importantly they use their own lifetime of experience and their empathy."

The Nefertari exhibition at the Getty Museum will include a life-size photographic replica of one of the tomb's most beautiful chambers. These photographs represent only a tiny fraction of the approximately 5,000 images of the tomb taken by photographer Guillermo Aldana before, during, and after the conservation process.

This photographic archive of 35 mm and 4x5 negatives makes the Nefertari Project one of the best documented conservation campaigns in recent times. The archive—which includes about 50 images duplicating the frame of reference of photographs taken during Schiaparelli's time—constitutes an important record of not only what was done, but how.

The project's achievements extend to training as well. An important component of the project was transferring technical skills to the Egyptian conservators to assist them in caring for their own cultural heritage. In total, eight Egyptian conservators were trained—three at Nefertari, and five at another tomb in the Valley of the Nobles. These conservators will soon put their new knowledge to work in tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Certainly the technical lessons learned from the project will have application elsewhere. "The conservation of the tomb of Nefertari has not only preserved an extraordinary historical treasure," observes present EAO chairman Mohamed Ibrahim Bakr. "It has confirmed the wisdom of certain methodologies that we can utilize to preserve other tombs of Egyptian antiquity. This is an important benefit."

There was one unexpected bonus to the Nefertari Project. In the spring of 1988, in preparation for the tomb's final conservation, a worker was cleaning the floor in a small chamber off the main sarcophagus room. There he made the first discovery since Schiaparelli of an object in the tomb—a tiny gold sheet 1 1/2" x 1", inscribed with hieroglyphics. After initial study, the tentative conclusion was reached that the fragment was from either a bracelet or armlet. Because a substance on the gold sheet appeared to be a resin used in mummification, it is possible that the fragment came from the body of the queen herself.

The Quest for Eternity

While the conservation of the tomb of Nefertari is complete, the Nefertari Project is not. The tomb remains closed to the general public while the EAO and the GCI maintain environmental monitoring of the tomb's interior.

The purpose of the monitoring, which will continue until the spring of 1994, is to provide additional data on the effect of visitors on the tomb's environment. The information is critical for the simple reason that the destructive salts in the plaster and limestone can never be fully removed. Because the salts can be reactivated by a rise in relative humidity, human presence in the tomb can potentially restart the crystallization process.

Mr. Corzo reports that from the short-term experiments already done it is apparent there would be real difficulties with large numbers of visitors. "Our preliminary findings indicate that twelve people in the tomb for only one hour increases the relative humidity by 5%. Essentially, we are trying to determine how many people we can have at any given time in the tomb—and for what periods of time—before all the environmental conditions go back to normal."

For Mr. Corzo, the dilemmas posed by the tomb of Nefertari are typical of the problems faced by many of those responsible for the care of cultural sites. Because of the vast increase in tourism in Egypt and elsewhere, there is a tremendous need to manage cultural sites astutely.

"You can't have unlimited access, unlimited hours, and unlimited numbers," he says. "You can't because the tourism reality of the 1990s is not the reality of the 1940s and 1950s. If we fail to apply sensible limitations in the visiting of cultural sites, many sites will not last another generation."

In the case of the tomb of Nefertari, its loss would be not only grievous but ironic—ironic because the tomb's function for the ancient Egyptians was more than that of a simple burial place. It was an avenue to eternal life. The images and inscriptions on the tomb's walls were meant to insure Queen Nefertari's resurrection and a home among the gods.

Today Queen Nefertari's final resting place has been resurrected not by divine intervention, but through human skill and concern. Its place in eternity will depend upon human wisdom.

Members of the Team

The wall paintings conservators who participated in the Nefertari Project included:

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Team Directors

Paolo Mora
Laura Mora


Abd El Rady
Abd El Moniem
Abd El Nasser Ahmed
Lorenza d'Alessandro
Giorgio Capriotti
Luigi de Cesaris
Giuseppe Giordano
Ahmed Ali Hussein
Lutfi Khaled
Adriano Luzi
Gemal Mahgoub
Hussein Mohamed Ali
Eduardo Porta
Stephen Rickerby
Sayed Ahmed El Shahat
Christina Vazio