Getty Expertise Welcomed in Land of the Pharaohs

Times Art Writer

If you want to irritate Sayed Tawfik, the new chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, just put on a patronizing face and announce that you would like to help his country.

He has little patience with disingenuous foreign archeologists who use his country to “help themselves become famous Egyptologists,” he said the other day in an interview at the Getty Conservation Institute in Marina del Rey. The Getty visit was part of Tawfik’s first trip to the United States, a three-week journey including an appearance at the current “Ramses II” exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art.

“Archeology began in Egypt with foreigners,” Tawfik said, but the country has suffered from those who use the field for personal aggrandizement. They dig, make discoveries, take pictures, get their names in the newspapers and leave without giving much thought--or help--to the restoration and maintenance of the sites where they have worked.

It takes a certain amount of courage for Tawfik to discriminate among would-be helpers. He is responsible for every monument, archeological site and antiquities museum in Egypt. He readily admits that he needs assistance with his country’s incredible cache of cultural history, but he is looking for the highest level of international teamwork.

That’s what he says he has found at the Getty Conservation Institute, directed by Luis Monreal. Functioning primarily as a catalyst, the institute provides expertise, training and partial funding for projects and assembles international teams of experts to advise local organizations on the conservation of their cultural heritage.

Two successful joint projects of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and the Getty Conservation Institute have left Tawfik hoping for more of the right kind of help. One is the development of a climate-controlled storage case for organic material. The problem was worked out on a 3,000-year-old, 4-foot, 10-inch mummy who gave her body to research but has suffered no ill effects in the process.


Dubbed Lady X, the anonymous mummy was shipped in 1987 from Egypt to Marina del Rey. Over a period of several months, Getty scientists built and tested a prototype air-tight case that preserves organic material in an inert gas atmosphere. The idea was to find a simple, inexpensive solution that could be adopted by museums around the world. The result is an aluminum-framed glass box that is hermetically sealed with O-rings and costs about $1,700.

The cases can be used for storage and display of parchment, leather and wood as well as unearthed human remains, which deteriorate from pollution, unstable environments and attacks of microorganisms.

Lady X will soon return to the Cairo Museum, along with one of the new cases. She will not reside in the special box, however. It is reserved for a more important personage, one of 27 royal mummies from the New Kingdom discovered in 1881.

Tawfik hopes to acquire a complete set of the protective cases for a new display of the royal mummies at the Cairo Museum, but it will take time, instruction and money.

“Money you can always get,” he said, although the Egyptian Antiquities Organization is funded largely by tourist revenues and not by the government. This year the organization will spend about $8.5 million on restoration.

Expertise is a bigger challenge, Tawfik said. For the mummy project, two of his 13,000 employees visited the Getty to learn how to build the cases. To deal with the long-range problem of training Egyptian conservators, Tawfik has established a department of conservation at Cairo University.

The other joint project between Egypt and the Getty is a scientific study and conservation treatment of wall paintings in the 3,200-year-old tomb of Nefertari, the favorite wife on Ramses II, in West Thebes. Salt crystals and loose plaster threatened elaborate paintings depicting the elegantly dressed queen and her entourage.

Considered one of the best surviving examples of New Kingdom artwork, the tomb had been in a precarious condition ever since its discovery in 1904 by Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli. Various studies and ill-advised restoration had done little to help the situation over the years. But the recent joint project provided a thorough analysis of problems at the site, prescribed treatment and set experts to working on emergency conservation measures that have stabilized the wall paintings.

Egyptian workers spent about five years on the project. “At that rate, with about 1,000 tombs in Egypt, it will take 5,000 years to take care of all of them,” Tawfik said.

A daunting task, but he says such efforts are essential to national pride and to the fundamental sense of history that permeates every Egyptian child’s education. The job is also “sensitive,” he said, because his organization must balance the concerns of ethnic and religious groups in Egypt.

“The main thing is to maintain what we have, to publish what we have,” Tawfik said.

Yes, but how does he set priorities?

By responding to “what is falling down, what is having a heart attack.”