(2:10 p.m. EST) -- Planning to take a Nile cruise in order to visit the famous tomb of Tutankhamun, aka King Tut? You'd better hurry, as it has just been announced that the burial chamber, the most visited in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, is to be closed for five years.
Starting in May 2010, King Tut's tomb -- the painted walls of which are degenerating with unexplained brown markings -- will be off limits to tourists for a joint conservation effort between Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute. The groups will spend two years determining the cause of the unexplained spots (most likely, according to scientists who have worked on past renovations of ancient Egyptian tombs, the heat and humidity brought by thousands of daily visitors) and a further three trying to solve the problem.
This isn't the first joint effort between Getty and the Egyptian authorities; the Foundation has restored other tombs in the Valley of the Kings and has also designed a series of airtight cases for the display of several precious Egyptian mummies.
Of course, the closure does not mean that Nile River cruises -- and ocean-going ships that stop at Safaga on the Red Sea to bus people into Luxor -- should be off your radar. Luxor boasts many other spectacular attractions and activities, including hot air balloon flights over the Nile, the market in Luxor and felucca rides on the river. The Temple of Karnak, the smaller Luxor Temple and the exquisite Temple of Queen Hatchepsut will be open as usual.
Plus, there are plenty of other tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the less dramatic Valley of the Queens that are frankly more impressive than Tutankhamun's -- it's just that his is the most famous.
Here's the reason for the intrigue: Although King Tut was only a minor royal when he reigned 3,000 years ago, his tomb -- less glamorously known as KV62 and unearthed by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 -- was one of the few on the Nile's West Bank at Luxor to be discovered almost intact, packed with objects of untold value and beauty, including the famous golden burial mask. The mummy came complete with its own curse: Carter's patron, Lord Carnarvon, died mysteriously just five months after the great discovery.
Perhaps the brown spots are a new manifestation of the curse? "I always see the tomb of King Tut and wonder about those spots, which no scientist has been able to explain," said Zahi Hawass, the head of the SCA, in a media statement. "Now I am happy that the Getty will look at the tomb and preserve its beautiful scenes."
Even after Tut's burial chamber reopens, the days of visiting the tombs in the Valley of the Kings may be numbered. At the same time as the Getty restoration project, the SCA is working on a long-term plan with Madrid-based Factum Arte, a company that produces highly sophisticated facsimiles of valuable antiquities, to create replicas of the tombs of Seti I and Nefertari (neither of which is currently open to the general public) and Tutankhamun.
The exhibit, which is expected to be expanded over time to include more of the most fragile of the valley's 63 known tombs, will become a permanent installation on the same site, with the working title "The Replica Valley" -- and the real tombs will one day no longer be available to visit.
While it's without doubt a worthy and much-needed conservation effort, Egypt, for many, is an awfully long way to go to look at a model. Would you still want to visit? Vote in our poll.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor