Is this the earliest image of a gay couple?

October 28, 2005

An intimate embrace between two Ancient Egyptian men has stirred strong feeling and rigorous debate in the academy, says Steve Farrar

Mounir Basta crawled out of the rough-hewn passageway and found himself standing in one of the innermost chambers of the tomb. The experienced Egyptologist held his kerosene lamp high and looked around him.

Mummies choked the floor. But Basta paid little attention to them. Instead, his eyes fixed on the beautiful figures carved in the walls. There in front of him were images of the two men for whom the tomb had been built more than four millennia earlier. The long-dead court functionaries stood face to face, eyes locked directly on one another. And to Basta's astonishment, they were locked together in an eternal embrace.

Basta had worked for many years in the great necropolis of Saqqara, in Memphis on the west bank of the Nile. Within its expanse are interred several pharaohs and many nobles while over everything towers the celebrated stepped pyramid of Zozer. The discovery of another tomb in 1964 was a cause for excitement. But there was not much expectation that anything inside would ultimately stir so much controversy. Yet as Basta explored the compact rock-cut complex, the more intrigued he became.

Carvings throughout the chambers appeared to tell a fairly conventional story about a couple preparing for their journey into the afterlife. But the couple, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, manicurists to the pharaoh Niuserre, were men. Again and again they were pictured in intimate embraces. Both had wives and children but they were pushed into the background, minor characters in the funereal drama. The carvings depicted something quite exceptional, the like of which Basta had never seen. But with no obvious explanation in the heiroglyphs that surrounded the images, he later wrote: "Were they two brothers? Were they the father and son? Or were they two officials in the king's palace who had enjoyed a cordial friendship?"

There is another possible explanation, one that has divided opinion and prompted accusations of political correctness, and one that is set to be debated for the first time at a conference on sex and gender in Ancient Egypt, to be held at Swansea University's Egypt Centre in December - that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were homosexual. Could the funeral embrace that Basta had gazed upon in awe some 40 years ago be the earliest image of a socially accepted gay couple?

Greg Reeder, a respected non-academic Egyptologist in San Francisco and contributing editor of KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt , is the champion of this interpretation. While the idea has been around for some years, Reeder's full thesis about what the carvings depict was published only in 2000 in the journal World Archaeology . He concluded: "Same-sex desire must be considered as a probable explanation."

In a tour of the tomb on Reeder's website ( www.egyptology.com/niankhkhnum_khnumhotep ), the scattered clues as to Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's secret stare out from the ancient walls. Some scenes depict them separately, alongside their wives and children. But elsewhere, they walk hand in hand and embrace one another in poses that Reeder says are usually reserved for husband and wife. Their names are inscribed together as one above the entrance to the inner rooms; in the offering chamber they are shown in such a close embrace that the tips of their noses and the knots on their kilts touch; in another they are pictured at a final banquet, Niankhkhnum's wife having been deliberately erased by the tomb's craftsmen, Khnumhotep's not appearing at all.

To Reeder, the connotations are striking. The two men, who shared the title of royal manicurist, were also sharing their journey to the afterlife. They had to be a couple. Nevertheless, he stops short of explicitly stating that they had a homosexual relationship, acknowledging the limits of the evidence. "We can only say the carvings show a profound intimacy between the two men, and the people who constructed the tomb were possibly unsure how to portray this," he says.

But the suggestion has been embraced by many outside academe. The tomb itself, restored in the late 1970s and opened to the public in the 1990s, has become something of a place of pilgrimage for gay tourists. Activists use it to show the antiquity of homosexual couples. Reeder finds this understandable. "When gay marriage is being discussed and debated, people want to look to the past and find things that would indicate that there were same-sex relationships in ancient times that the state on occasion could sanction," he says. But the academic community has proved more resistant.

The principal alternative explanation was proposed by John Baines, professor of Egyptology at Oxford University. In a seminal study in 1985, he suggested the "exaggerated affection" displayed by the two men pointed to them being twins. The tomb's craftsmen had then sought an acceptable symbolism that showed Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep as individuals as well as a single social person. But Baines, like Reeder, was careful not to interpret too much from one set of unparalleled images, noting: "Since the hand-holding and embracing scenes may be unique between men of equal station in private tombs, little can be said about their meaning beyond the fact that they express publicly the close involvement of the two men."

David O'Connor, professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, is due to develop Baines' concept further at the Swansea conference. "The hypothetical solution I suggest is that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were indeed twins, but specifically 'Siamese' or conjoined twins," O'Connor says in the abstract of his paper.

"The artists involved in this tomb chapel adapted the visual language relevant to emotional and perhaps sometimes sexual intimacy in order to express an extremely rare fraternal circumstance."

Yet could such suggestions reveal something profound about the whole Egyptological community? Thomas Dowson, an independent scholar formerly at Manchester University, argues that the reluctance to conclude that the carvings could show a same-sex relationship being celebrated in ancient Egypt reveals an overwhelming bias towards heterosexual normality in academe. Why, he asks, is the same degree of proof not required of depictions of male-female couples? In the forthcoming volume Feminist Anthropology , Dowson notes: "Reeder and others are required to produce closely argued analyses for why a particular relationship should be seen as homosexual, whereas heterosexual identities are merely and credibly presumed."

In the abstract to the paper Dowson will deliver at the Swansea conference, he says: "Despite recent attempts by a few more enlightened scholars in Egyptology to shake off this heteronormative tradition, problems in the way in which sex and gender in Ancient Egypt are constructed persist. One of the reasons is certainly due to the reluctance on the part of some Egyptologists to engage with recent gender theory." He notes that some opponents have felt able to dismiss Reeder's work by claiming it demonstrated "a tendency to push the ancient data in the service of contemporary sexual politics, irrespective of the evidence".

Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper in the department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum and another speaker at the conference, does not believe Egyptology is afflicted with homophobia. Furthermore, he feels the homosexual interpretation of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's tomb could in fact imperil queer theory in Egyptology.

"If one is trying to find queer images in the ancient past, one has to be absolutely certain. Otherwise people might conclude that one is seeing what one wants to see and that all such investigations might be slightly flawed," he says. "There is a fine line between reading against the grain in a new historicist, queer theory manner and producing a reading that's highly unlikely."

The evidence, Parkinson believes, suggests the two men were twins, the similar elements in their names and the lack of any other case adding to his conviction. Furthermore, his research into Ancient Egyptian texts has revealed that in Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's time, homosexual desire was recognised but sexual acts between men were seen as irregular and on a par with adultery.

"Both men are married and both have children so whatever the relationship is, it cannot be seen as a modern gay relationship," Parkinson says. "It is hard for the European eye to resist seeing images of men being physically intimate as homoerotic. And the two men have short hair and moustaches and have titles to do with hairdressing - there is the worry that modern stereotypes and caricatures of the homosexual are being projected back into the ancient past."

Everything is primed for a passionate debate. Of course, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep will remain silent. In fact, nothing of them survives - the tomb had been stripped bare by the graverobbers whose passageway Basta had used to get in.

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