Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kings & Queens: Nefertari - A Queen at rest in eternity

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism joined forces with the Italian Embassy in Egypt to mark the 110th anniversary of the discovery of Queen Nefertari’s tomb.

As the age-old addage goes: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” Well, Nefertari, of course! Sometimes spelled Nofertari, Nefertari’s name means “most beautiful companion”. Not to be confused with the more famous Queen Nefertiti, Nefertari was one of several wives or queens of Ramesses II (1290-1224 BCE). 

Her elaborate tomb was found in the Valley of the Queens (present-day Deir Al-Medina), in the royal burial grounds near Thebes.

The tomb was discovered in 1904, by Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856-1928), the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin. There is evidence that the tomb had been opened and looted by robbers in ancient times, but some items such as shabtis were still found.


Shabtis are small figures which were believed to serve the dead after they passed on to their next life by irrigating the fields and harvesting the crops. They look like mummified human figures, with bound and folded arms and legs. They typically had magical spells carved in hieroglyphics, imploring the gods and calling the figurines to serve their namesakes in the afterlife. In later dynasties, the inscriptions featured the name and title of their owner.

Schiaparelli is credited for another important excavation: that of the complete, never-opened tomb of Kha, a royal architect, and his wife Merit who lived during the 18th Dynasty (approximately 1350-1440 BCE). All the funerary items he found are preserved in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, which has the second best collection in the world, after Cairo, enriched by Schaparelli’s many years of excavation in Egypt.


Nefertari’s tomb quickly became famous in 1904, contributing to the “Egyptomania” of the turn of the 20th century. It is one of the best preserved tombs, with brightly-coloured wall paintings showing the queen’s final voyage from death to the underworld, guided by various guardian-spirits and deities. Along her side, we recognize Isis, Hathor and Osiris, among many other fascinating characters in the unending pantheon of Egyptian gods. These facts earned the tomb the eponym: “Sistine Chapel of Pharaonic History”.

In 1998, the tomb was saved from deterioration by an international team of archaeologists and restoration workers who undertook the restoration of the tomb. Salt deposits and rainwater damage over past centuries had ruined the plaster layers, which were in urgent need of remediation.

References to Queen Nefertari were found all over Egypt, illustrating her reign. This may be explained by the fact that her son prince Amenhirkhepeshef was heir to King Ramesses’ throne. Nefertari’s parents are not known, but we do know that she was never accompanied by the titles associated to kings’ daughters, but rather those titles given to daughters of a noble. It is believed that she married Ramesses II before he became king. A letter by Nefertari was found among the royal archives of Queen Puduheba, in Bogazkoya, part of the ancient Hittite empire.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is marking the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the tomb’s discovery. Photographs will be displayed reproduced from the original photos of this historic event, in a format close to the original, allowing visitors to see the enlarged images of long ago for the first time. The photo exhibition also features images prior and following restoration by the Getty Conservation Institute, with current ones taken by photographer Sandro Vannini.

Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazou was quoted on the ministry’s website as saying that these “events have an important impact on promoting cultural tourism in order to assure stability and security in Egypt.” Italian archaeologists, trip organisers and media professionals representing Egypt and Italy have already attended festivities in Luxor in mid-October aimed at promoting tourism. In all, two photo exhibitions will be held, one at the Luxor Museum and one at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

A replica tomb is planned by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, reproducing even the small details along with all the wall inscriptions. Although needing painstaking work, when completed, this replica will allow tourists to experience first-hand how the tomb looks, without causing further damage to the original.
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