For using new tech to preserve ancient historical treasures
Aliaa Ismail's to-do list is pretty typical: planning out her projects, exploring new innovations, poring over budgets, meeting with stakeholders. One slight difference? Her work takes place in two architectural wonders: one ancient (the Egyptian tomb of Seti I) and the other more modern (Stoppelaëre House, designed by famous architect Hassan Fathy). And her role at the Factum Foundation is noteworthy not only for the interesting digs but also because she's the first Egyptian Egyptologist to start using high-precision technologies to document cultural heritage sites.
Having studied both architectural engineering and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, Ismail is putting all that knowledge to use in exploring innovative 3D scanning technology to more precisely record the state of the tombs in the famous Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
Upon joining Factum Foundation in 2014, she began intensive training on the organization's Lucida scanner, developed in house to meet the demands of digital heritage preservation. "Most commercial scanners cannot accurately scan things that are flat, like a wall," she says. "But the Lucida 3D scanner is able to document the wall's relief, the ins and outs, and even the smallest of scratches in the most precise manner, at a 1:1 scale."
Her project aims to digitally preserve the tomb of Seti I, a pharaoh believed to have ruled during the 1200s BCE. The royal tomb is one of Egypt's most well-preserved and is a standout for its ancient Egyptian religious texts.
The priority for any of the scanning projects is to help preserve information about the site that might deteriorate over time. The technology also opens the possibility of creating highly detailed, historically accurate facsimiles. Doing so could provide an alternative for sites that are either closed to the public (as the Tomb of Seti was for decades) or have strictly limited capacity to safeguard against the very real dangers of large-scale visitor traffic. (Everything from the humidity of tourists' breath to the friction of thousands of people shuffling along visitor paths can wreak havoc in such fragile environments.)
Full-scale, scan-enabled replicas of both the Lascaux cave in France and the cave of Altamira in Spain have become major visitor attractions in their own right. And Factum Foundation aims to do the same for the Tomb of Seti I, with replicas of the first two rooms, along with Seti's sarcophagus, exhibited in 2017 in Basel. Once the full tomb has been scanned and replicated, the Tomb of Seti I will be the largest and most detailed facsimile ever made, according to the foundation. Over the years, Ismail says she has learned all the scanner's mechanics and can "solve any problems with it." And now she's working to transfer this knowledge to the local community in Luxor.
"Most missions come with their tech and go, and even if they leave a piece of equipment behind, nobody uses it," she says. "The idea, with this project, is to train people. When people understand and believe in what they're doing, that's what gives meaning to the work."
Q&A: Aliaa Ismail on the pandemic, budgets and the beauty of Nefertari's tomb
How did the pandemic affect how you led your projects?
We took a brief break in 2020, when all the archaeological sites here were closed for three months. We worked on processing data during that time. When the break was over, we were the first team back into the tomb. Everyone else took the whole year, but we were very motivated and passionate about our work.
What's your project management superpower?
Getting the work done with very limited resources. It's a very useful one. The biggest challenge facing project leaders right now is funding. If I had a huge budget, I wouldn't work in just one tomb, I'd have different teams. This project would have a much bigger impact. But you can't do that without equipment and training people. It all costs money.
What moonshot project would you most like to work on?
We are finalizing Seti, and then the next project is to go to the tomb of Nefertari—the other most famous tomb here—and to train a lot of teams to document it. Nefertari's tomb is the most beautiful in the West Bank. People come from all over the world just to see it. There's no other word to describe it—it's just gorgeous.