In 1962, Mounir Basta (the Chief Inspector of Lower Egypt at the time) descended into the darkness of the Necropolis of Saqqara – a site now host to an archaeological museum boasting 4.5 stars according to Google maps! What he found there would shock him to his very core, it appeared to be two men embracing. Or, the image of two men embracing rather. Puzzled, Basta asked himself “Were they two brothers? Were they father and son?” or were they perhaps, gasp, gay?
The gentlemen in question bore the names of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, and lived approximately 4382 years ago, in the 24th century BCE. They served in Pharao Nyuserre Ini’s palace as overseers of the manicurists, and have since their tomb’s ‘discovery’ (I mean, it’s not like it was lost: they chose for it to be there) confused a lot of academics (something I’m familiar with). The problem centres around the ambiguity surrounding their relationship, as the kinship term sn, usually taken to mean brother, actually has several meanings including “friend, lover, and colleague.” So, what was their relationship like? Is there any way of knowing?
Well, let’s look at what their tomb says. Further into the tomb, in the rock-cut chamber, an elaborate banquet scene is depicted, with Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep seated opposite each other as heads of the table. In and of itself, this might elicit a low ping on the gay-dar. After all, people in platonic relationships dine together all the time. What’s interesting about this depiction is that seemingly, Niankhkhnum’s wife was originally supposed to be in it, but had been erased. Both of the men’s wives are given secondary roles to their husbands compared to their husband’s relationship to each other, in fact.
Nowhere is this as painfully obvious as in the portrait at the entrance to the offering chamber. It shows the two men standing face to face, looking into each other’s eyes, so close that their noses are touching. Niankhkhnum is supporting Khnumhotep’s forearm, whilst Khnumhotep embraces Niankhkhnum’s back and rests his hand on his shoulder. This pose is paralleled in both the tombs of Uhemka and Kai, where a wife is shown embracing her husband in this way. It was a motif similar to this one that Basta would have seen, and understandably he was surprised. Combining images like these with depictions of banquets where the music played is on the theme of Horus and Seth, the “Two Divine Brothers,” a story with possible homoerotic undertones depending on the telling, and the evidence towards the two seems rainbow coloured indeed.
The remains of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep have never been found. We have no physical evidence of them, we cannot see or feel their bones or reconstruct their faces, like we’ve done with Tutankhamun or Henry VIII. But the motifs remain, and tell their own story, and their own truth, all this time later. It is strange to think that, somehow, one does not require a body to be immortal.
Next week we will look at the depiction of same-sex love between women among the ruins of Pompeii. Commonly descriptions of ancient European homosexuality centres on male Greek and Roman homosexuality, but what were the lives of lesbians in ancient Italy like?
Source: Same-Sex Desire, Conjugal Constructs, and the Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep By Greg Reeder
Visit the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep yourself at egyptology.com/niankhkhnum_khnumhotep/floorplan.html