LUXOR, EGYPT -- In this upper Egyptian town, across the river from the Nile-side corniche where men in long robes hawk buggy rides to the foreign tourists, an international team of restorers has pasted 10,000 strips of gauze and rice paper on parts of an ancient tomb.
The emergency treatment of the burial chambers of Queen Nefertari, favorite wife of Pharaoh Ramses II, is the first stage of what Egyptian officials hope will be the most important salvage of a Pharaonic monument since the Nubian temples were saved more than 15 years ago.
In the 1960s, UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural and scientific organization, coordinated the dismantling and rebuilding of the massive temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel and later of Philae temple. Both Nubian monuments were threatened by water from the newly built Aswan High Dam.
In this latest project, the Getty Conservation Institute, a sister institution of the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles, has financed the emergency treatment of the 3,200-year-old tomb, hewn out of limestone rock in the Valley of the Queens near the burial places of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. The Getty Institute has also undertaken to help implement a permanent restoration afterward.
Nefertari's tomb is considered the most beautiful example of Pharaonic art of its period. Its 3,200 square feet of painted murals on two levels are chock full of elaborate depictions in vivid colors of the queen adoring the various animal and human-headed gods under rows of thousands of hand-painted twinkling stars.
But the chambers, discovered in 1904, are also among the most imperiled ancient monuments. Salt in the rock behind the painted plaster has recrystallized, in some places detaching the plaster and in others causing the paint to flake away. Twenty percent of the painted surface has already been lost.
In the 10 months since the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and the Getty Institute announced the salvage, a team of restorers has applied "Band-Aids" to areas in the tomb where more paint was about to detach.
The "first aid" -- gauze strips holding up the heavens and rice papers patching up tears in the queen's diaphanous gown -- is expected to prevent further deterioration until a final plan is approved, or for 25 years if necessary
At the same time, a multidisciplinary study of conditions inside and outside the tomb, also financed by Getty, has pointed to conclusions about the cause of decay. A committee of scientists brought together by Getty and the Egyptian government is now poised to decide what the final treatment for Queen Nefertari's chambers should be.
"This is one piece of the most important heritage of human history, to be compared with the Sistine Chapel, Taj Mahal and Abu Simbel," said Ahmad Kadri, chairman of the EAO. "After 40 years of doubts, worries and unchecked deterioration, we are now in a position to claim that Nefertari is on the way to being salvaged."
To mark the completion of the emergency treatment, the EAO invited western reporters to visit the tomb, which has been closed for about 40 years.
Although some sections are in a sorry state, others appear to have been painted yesterday.
The upper-level antechamber, the room closest to our world, deals with daily life as well as the queen's initiation in the underworld. A smiling but timid Nefertari is led by the hand toward death by various animal-headed gods.
The stairway leading down to the burial chamber represents the passage from life to death, said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, a professor of archeology at Cairo University. Queen Nefertari is shown protected by black jackals, the god of mummification, and other gods.
The lower level, or burial chamber, robbed of its mummy during antiquity, is more damaged than the upper level but is also spectacular. Four painted pillars form a symbolic canopy that received the sarcophagus at the queen's death. The inner fac ade of the pillars shows a green-headed Osiris, god of resurrection, welcoming the queen to his domain. The wall murals show the queen passing through 12 gates on her way to a new life and were designed to help her attain rebirth.
In some of the murals, the observer can still see the painted pleats of Queen Nefertari's skirt and the marks of the artist's fingernails. On the ceiling, the paint-daubed fingerprints of the ancient artist are still obvious.
"This is not a tomb, it's a house of eternity," said Gaballa. "The Pharaohs weren't joking. They knew what they were doing."
But Nefertari's immortality was already endangered when the Italian archeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli discovered the tomb 83 years ago. Bundles of salt crystals in the rock had pushed the plaster off the wall. The Italians, and the French after them, made minor attempts at restoration but failed. The Egyptians also tried. But a small experiment on a back panel altered the original colors irreparably.
Money intended to finance more aid for Queen Nefertari, in particular a $1 million check from Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Philippine president, never reached the Antiquities Organization, according to Kadri.
Desperate, the Egyptians applied massive gauze pads to prevent more plaster from falling. Daunted by the danger to the tomb, they solicited foreign advice.
In 1985, the Getty Conservation Institute, newly founded and seeking a high-visibility project, came up with a plan for Nefertari that included a thorough scientific study to precede long-term restoration. The Egyptians bit.
So far, Getty has spent almost $400,000 on the project and it has yielded results. The scientific studies, which explored the temperature and humidity in the tomb, among other factors, have led scientists to believe that the decay was not caused by humidity in the air or moisture in the ground, as previous generations held. Scientists now believe that the crystallization was a one-time phenomenon that occurred when the ancients applied wet plaster to the limestone rock.
This theory makes the task of conservation relatively simple. In reattaching the detached plaster to the wall, according to Getty officials, minute amounts of water must be used and prevented from reaching the rock layer underneath through the use of varnish or protective emulsions.
"All the conditions are there to realize a good intervention," said Jean Claude Golvin, head of the French archeological mission in Luxor. "We need people who will see the project through to the end."
But the question is whether Getty will see the project through to the end. Overall restoration, which could take three to five years, will reportedly cost about $2 million.
The Egyptians would like to reopen the tomb to tourists and are therefore insisting on permanent restoration. But Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, said he would favor training Egyptian restorers to do the job. A Getty spokeswoman said Getty was not sure it would finance the entire restoration.
A scientific committee of Egyptian officials and of experts hired by the Getty Institute is due to meet this fall to discuss Queen Nefertari's fate. If Getty does not finance the bulk of the restoration, Nefertari's future could be in question again, and tourists might not see her for years. If Getty does agree, the sequel to the Abu Simbel success could be on its way.
The Egyptians are holding their breath. "She was a great woman," said Gaballa, explaining why the queen deserves the best: "When an Arab woman is asked which one of her children is the closest to her, she says the youngest until it grows, the absent one until he comes back, the sick one until he's better. Nefertari is sick. After we restore her, we might even forget about her and think of someone else."