The 3,200-year-old wall paintings of the tomb of Queen Nefertari at Thebes - regarded by Egyptologists as the finest of the pharaonic age – are being prepared for public viewing for the first time in 50 years.
In March of this year, exceptionally, Aramco World was granted permission by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization not only to visit the tomb but also to photograph the elaborate, painstaking and highly technical restoration work going on inside.
"Because of the paintings' precarious condition - the result of rainwater seepage and rock salt crystalization, as well as humidity from the breath and bodies of tourists - the tomb has remained closed since 1939 to ward off further deterioration. Apart from the archeologists and scientists working inside, only the occasional VIP has been allowed a glimpse of its splendid decoration until now.
"No tomb in the whole of Egypt is comparable in artistic superiority and fascination" to that of Nefertari, says Gamal Moukhtar, a former director of the Antiquities Organization. "The splendid paintings reflect the genius and skill of the artists and draftsmen working during the Ramesside artistic renaissance."
Art developed on two levels under the Ramesside pharaohs of the 13th century BC. Besides excellence of technical execution and subtlety of craftsmanship, artists also strove for decorative perfection - and nowhere more so than in the underground tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens at Thebes, site of modern-day Luxor.
These artists experimented as well with new painting techniques in the modeling of figures, using shading in their pigments - in effect showing highlight and shadow areas - to give a certain three-dimensional quality to faces and arms.
In the slim figure, delicate profile and elegant posture of Queen Nefertari - her name means "most beautiful of them all" - the artists of her day had a perfect subject, as well as a good excuse for extravagance: Nefertari attained a unique position among Egyptian queens. Favorite wife of Ramses II, she played an unparalleled role in foreign affairs and is the only wife of a pharaoh to be depicted on the facade of a temple - at Abu Simbel. Her tomb is thus a riot of rich and brilliant color, with vivid depiction of over 100 figures and reams of diverse hieroglyphics chronicling her active life.
And because the poor-quality limestone from which her tomb was hewn was not suited to the finest carving, craftsmen developed a special technique: They covered the rough rock surface with plaster into which the reliefs were cut, producing a smoothness of artistic expression rarely matched in other tombs.
Yet it is this very technique that threatens the continued existence of the wonderful works of art that it made possible. Rainwater seeped from the surface through the badly fractured rock surrounding the tomb, dissolving sodium chloride from the rock. Whenever the water dried, the salt crystallized behind the plaster layer, pushing the paintings off the wall.
When Italian archeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli discovered the tomb in 1904, its paintings were already seriously damaged by water and salt. Further damage was caused by the humidity created by sight-seers, and visitors touched, scratched and even chipped the paintings. Eventually, just before the outbreak of World War II, the tomb was closed to the public.
Between 1934 and 1977 various well-intentioned but unsuccessful restoration attempts were made. Some even aggravated the problem: Cement used to hold the plaster in place itself contained more water and salt, which further loosened the hold of the paint and plaster layer on the rock. Attempts to wipe the paintings clean smudged some of them instead; efforts to restore others proved to be clumsy and unsightly.
Eventually the Egyptian Antiquities Organization realized that the only way to save the paintings was to treat the entire tomb scientifically. But the Egyptian government, beset by serious economic and social problems, could not afford a large-scale project.
It was the Getty Conservation Institute of Los Angeles - one of the institutional heirs of the Getty oil fortune - that finally came forward with the cash. The Institute, says Special Projects Director Miguel Angel Corzo, has a shared interest with the Antiquities Organization in "conserving cultural property of world importance."
In 1986, all 520 square meters (5,600 square feet) of the tomb's remaining paintings - over a third of the original area had already been forever obliterated - were photographed, and 200 tables pinpointing areas of decay were drawn up to provide a comprehensive picture of the problem.
And in 1987, over 12,000 pieces of gauze and "Japanese paper" - a tough tissue handmade from mulberry bark - were carefully glued all over the tomb walls and ceilings as a kind of Band-Aid, to hold sagging plaster and flaking paint temporarily in place.
Meanwhile, geologists probed the drainage pattern in the rock around the tomb, with a view to diverting future rainwater from it. Fortunately, because of its elevation, the Valley of the Queens is not threatened by rising groundwater caused by Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan High Dam - a serious problem for many lower-lying monuments in the Nile Valley.
Restoration work began in earnest in February of this year, when a multinational team of mural conservationists, led by Italian Paolo Mora and his wife, Laura, tackled those areas of the tomb that were in most urgent need of preservation work.
Worst damaged were the paintings on the walls of the tomb's two complexes of rooms, and in the descending corridor connecting them. Murals in the outer chamber, depicting the earthly life of Nefertari and her adoration of gods and goddesses worshipped in phararonic times, were cracked and flaking badly.
Paintings on the walls of the corridor between the outer hall and the main burial chamber portray Nefertari's passage from the earthly life to the sepulchral sphere below. They were discolored with dirt rubbed from the hands of visitors descending the stairway. And in the 10.4 - by 8.45-meter (34- by 28-foot) burial chamber itself, and in its three small anterooms, the pictorial theme follows the various burial stages; there, large pieces of richly-painted plaster were literally hanging from the walls. "Everything," says Laura Mora, "was confusion."
Yet there were bright spots. The best preserved parts of the tomb were the magnificent midnight-blue ceiling, covered with thousands of yellow stars, and the four pillars, decorated with paintings of various deities, supporting the roof of the burial chamber.
Here - out of reach of human hands and hardly affected by rainwater - the natural, mineral-based colors applied 32 centuries ago shine almost as brilliantly as if they had been painted yesterday. Even individual brushstrokes are visible, and color still blossoms in painted cheeks.
"Man and water are always the cause of the damage," said Paolo Mora, carefully touching away with acetone the crudely applied, ill-matching paint used in earlier conservation efforts. "We believe in restoration, not alteration."
Dust and dirt, he explains, should not be removed by wiping: Though the natural pigments used by pharaonic artists do not fade, they can be smudged. Mora blows the dirt away with a low-pressure air gun.
This is just one of the tricks the Moras have learned during their combined total of nearly 100 years as teachers and restorers at the Instituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome. "We are well trained," says Paolo, "because we have lots of ancient monuments of our own in Italy."
All the other members of the team - four Italians, two Egyptians and a Briton - are under 30. For while the Moras have the experience, "young people," says Paolo, "have steady hands, good eyesight and lots of patience."
They need them. Adriano Luzi works crouched in the glare of spotlights in a cramped corner of the tomb six hours a day, six days a week for the duration of the two-month annual Luxor archeological "season." Restoration work, he says, "is long and difficult, because everything is very fragile."
It does, however, have its compensations. One who feels them especially strongly, particularly working in Nefertari's tomb, is Lotfi Khaled, a 26-year-old graduate of Cairo University's Faculty of Archeology. "Being Egyptian," he said, "I get a real good feeling working here. And my friends are very jealous."
Dressed completely in aseptic white and working in isolated pools of brilliant light throughout the tomb, restorers were applying the best technical methods known today with the minute attention to detail their work demands. Khaled and Briton Stephen Rickerby, of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, were fixing flaking plaster by injecting an acrylic resin emulsion behind it and gingerly pushing it back onto the wall.
On the other side of the burial chamber, more Italian restorers were re-attaching sections of richly-painted plaster to the wall with gypsum. The pieces had been removed so that cement used in earlier restoration could be cleaned from the wall behind them.
The tomb is hot and airless and full of dust and sickening chemical smells, but no one complains. Signs hung prominently on the forest of scaffolding that clutters the tomb sum up the team's attitude. They read: "No problem."
And if, in fact, all goes well, Paolo Mora hopes to complete the restoration of the tomb in four years' time.
John Lawton is a contributing editor of Aramco World.