Ambitious Restoration Project in Egypt : Queen Nefertari’s Tomb Is Getting a Face Lift


Glue-filled syringes, strips of gauze and air blowers have brought a healthy glow back to Queen Nefertari’s once-disintegrating tomb on the west bank of the Nile.

Many exquisitely painted 3,200-year-old murals, damaged by salt crystals eroding the walls, have been restored.

Hundreds of small yellow stars that had peeled off a scarred blue and black sky have been delicately stuck back.

“About 60% of the tomb has now been restored,” said Ali Hassan, director of the Pharaonic department in the Egyptian Antiquities Organization.


“If you go inside the tomb now, the colors are so clear and bright it looks as if it was painted yesterday.”

Nefertari was the favorite wife of King Ramses II, a Pharaoh who had at least 13 wives and had more than 100 children during his 66 years.

One of Most Beautiful Tombs

Her grave, in the Valley of the Queens, is regarded as one of the most beautiful of the tombs clustered in the desert across the river from the ancient city of Luxor.


Closed to the public since World War II, it has undergone three phases of a restoration program that began about 18 months ago.

A team of restorers, scientists and archeologists from the Antiquities Organization and the J. Paul Getty Conservation Institute in Marina del Rey near Los Angeles have painstakingly refurbished some of the seven chambers.

They met in Luxor recently to evaluate their work and draw up proposals to protect the tomb from floods, humidity and visitors before its reopening in about two years.

World Bank officials were present to discuss financing schemes to protect four other tombs, including King Tutankhamen’s.


Urgently Needed Items

Hassan said glass panels to keep visitors from touching the paintings and costly equipment to regulate humidity and temperature were urgently needed.

The tomb of Nefertari, hewn in a limestone mountain in a valley named “The Place of Beauty,” was discovered in 1904.

Some of its murals, covering 5,200 square feet, depict the slender queen playing a board game, worshiping sacred cows, standing before an ibis-headed god or making offerings to other deities.


Hassan said the Antiquities Organization gave restorers the green light to proceed with their fourth stage. The team led by Paulo Mora, former conservator of the Central Restoration Institute in Rome, will begin work in the burial chamber in October.

Even in an area of hot desert winds and rare rainfall, moisture has found its way into the tomb, ravaging paintings and activating salt crystals in the rock.

Some experts believe that water used by the ancient Egyptians to plaster the tomb activated the salt particles. Others say the tomb’s rock was originally of poor quality and faulty restoration in the past further damaged it.

Mohammed Nasr, director of the west bank site of Qurna, said restorers stuck thousands of thin strips of gauze and fine-grained paper to areas that had or could become detached.


They used an air blower at low pressure to remove dust. Wearing surgical gloves, they lifted the plaster to extract nail-like salt crystals that had formed behind the murals.

“The work they have done is great but now we have to worry about what will happen after they have finished,” said Nasr.

$200,000 Spent

In Luxor, the Getty Conservation Institute--which spent $200,000 on the first phase and is expected to provide much more in the future--proposed protective measures against water seepage.


These included digging inconspicuous drainage ditches on either side of the roof to channel water away from the entrance or adjacent tombs.

Pollution from vehicles parking near the sites and the thousands of tourists who daily visit the tombs--perspiring and stirring up the dust--is a major worry.

Hassan said they had to stabilize the atmosphere within the tomb, work out a ventilation and lighting system, control dust and decide how to limit the number of visitors.

“Nefertari is very dear to us,” said Hassan. “It is not enough to restore her tomb . . . . We have to learn to protect it for the generations to come.”