YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Culture : Egypt's Sleeping Beauty Revived After 3,200 Years : Restoring the tomb of Queen Nefertari raises profound issues of art and history.


ROME — Then, she was cherished across Egypt for her beauty and her brains. Now, the queen known to history as Nefertari is reaching across more than 3,000 years to raise some provocative questions about the future.

What in the world among the myriad relics of yesterday is worth conserving for coming generations? Save that building? Save this feather? And, since it's impossible to save everything, what should time and old age be allowed to have their way with?

The ancient queen is a jewel, worth keeping, because she illustrates these questions and their challenges.

Nefertari, literally "the most beautiful," was the first wife and favorite consort of mighty Ramses II, who reigned 1290-1224 BC. She lived about 45 years, circa 1300-1255 BC. He prized her companionship and counsel, loaded her with titles such as "mother and wife of god in life," and built her a spectacular tomb (before marrying their eldest daughter).

To speed his beloved's journey to eternity, Ramses stocked the tomb with jewels, amulets and funerary statuettes of black-painted sycamore; they were supposed to spring to life to serve Nefertari in the afterlife. Tomb stockers also thoughtfully left a queenly pair of corded sandals--and the era's best wall paintings.

Forgotten centuries ago, grave robbers looted the queen's burial chamber, her treasures and the mummy itself. But in 1904, Nefertari's resting place in the Valley of the Queens near Luxor was discovered for science by an Italian diplomat and a more-than-amateur archeologist named Ernesto Schiaparelli.

Now, after new scholarship and six years of painstaking restoration, Nefertari and her burial chamber are subjects of a pioneer exhibition that opened here this month, blending artifacts with the theme of conservation and the high-tech wonderland of virtual reality.

The Louvre, the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum in Schiaparelli's native Turin have all contributed to a show whose artifacts range from an exquisite bezeled ring inscribed with the names of Ramses and Nefertari to a brooding, five-ton Colossus of Ramses.

In death, Nefertari, who lived one century and one dynasty later than the equally famous Nefertiti, reveals volumes about her life and times. The exhibit documents the checker-like solitaire game she fancied. It showcases her timeless beauty and the reverence she inspired three millennia ago as "the lady of fascination," "the sweetness of love," "the divine one."

The paintings are underscored with hieroglyphics. One depicts Nefertari's ritual acceptance by the gods of the afterlife, with one of them greeting her: "When you came to me, I gave you a place in the holy ground. May you appear in the sky like your father, Ra."

There is a more down-to-earth message in the exhibition, though. "This is the first time an exhibition has brought conservation into the life of an exhibition. We want to raise people's consciousness about conservation as an extension of art," said Mahasti Afshar, who assembled the show for the Getty Conservation Institute.

The Malibu-based Getty paid several million dollars for the restorations in Egypt by Italian experts as part of a worldwide program to find new ways of diagnosis and treatment that improve art conservation.

"We are really talking about conservation of the future, not the past," said Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the Getty institute. "With Nefertari, we are attracting people with the magic and mystery of Egypt and showing them the results of a complex conservation project. We are selling the message of the importance of conservation--and conservation appropriate to the specific project."

The Nefertari burial chamber, as a case in point, is perhaps the most important of all the royal tombs in Egypt, Corzo said. Its wall paintings, rich in color and symbolism, tell the ancient Egyptian story of the passage of a soul to eternity.

Schiaparelli was appalled at the ravages of time and vandals on the art when he discovered the tomb. He introduced turn- of-the-century science to his studies, importing a photographer and a surveyor in a quest for accuracy. Merely opening the tomb upset a delicate atmospheric balance.

Corzo said that in a large Egyptian tomb nowadays, the typical daily presence of 3,500 visitors adds 11 gallons of water to the air. Over time, the increased humidity leaches salt from the limestone and damages painted plaster walls.

Photographic studies of Nefertari's tomb over the decades since Schiaparelli's photographer took the first pictures show dramatic and accelerating deterioration of the art. Italian specialists, who are among the world's top restorers, did an emergency intervention to stop flaking, cracking and falling plaster, and then undertook systematic conservation of the tomb.

The result is a 3,000-year-old work of art that is once again strikingly bold and fresh-looking. But the restorers added not a drop of paint.

Los Angeles Times Articles