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Joined In Life and Death: The first recorded gay couple

Illustration from photograph ©1999 Greg Reeder

Four millennia before the Californian Supreme Court overturned its ban on same-sex marriage and Ellen DeGeneres wed her girlfriend Portia de Rossi, two manicurists of Ancient Egypt won social acceptance for their homosexual relationship.

Since the Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep was discovered in 1964 in the Necropolis of Saqqara at Memphis on the West bank of the Nile, debate has raged as to what relationship they shared as it is extremely rare to find two men of equal status buried together.

The key to this mystery lies in the Wall paintings covering the inside of the tomb,
which show the two men repeatedly pictured together, sometimes holding hands, sometimes with their arms around each other. In two of these murals they are shown with noses touching, the most intimate embrace permitted in Egyptian art at the time.

Although the tomb has been studied, very little has been written about it. A fact Egyptologist Greg Reeder, a contributing editor to the Egyptology Journal KMT, is planning on changing.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Mr Reeder said Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep adopt poses which are strikingly similar to male-female married couples on other tombs of that era. “Same-sex desire must be considered as a probable explanation,” he said, though he admits it is impossible to be sure. “We can only say for certain that the carvings show a profound intimacy between the two men, and the people who built the tomb were possibly unsure how to portray this.”
Opponents say that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep could have been twins, conjoined twins or blood relatives, such as brothers, because of the similarities between the two names.

“The danger is that people want to find positive (homosexual) images in the past and it is very hard for modern European eyes to resist seeing the images as homoerotic,” Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper in the department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said to The Sunday Times. “I doubt myself that this is one of them, simply because we have no other evidence of male-male relationships being commemorated.”

Niankhkhnum means “joined in life” and Khnumhotep means “joined to the blessed state of the dead”. Together the names can be translated as “joined in life and joined in death” and although it was not unheard of for Egyptians to change their names later in life, the two men also share the same title, “Overseer of Manuscripts to the Pharaoh”. As such they were responsible for the Pharaoh’s hands and among the privileged few allowed to touch the ruler.

Even though Niankhkhnum was known to be married, the hieroglyphs that tell their stories still fail to mention their relationship. In a scene where the two men share a final banquet before their journey into the afterlife, Niankhkhnum’s wife has been plastered over and Khnumhotep’s spouse fails to make an appearance at all.

Mr Reeder said that in this banquet scene, Khnumhotep occupies the place normally associated with wives and that hints of homosexual relationships, commonplace in ancient Greece and Rome, have been found in Egyptian Papyruses.

“Same-sex desire existed just behind the ideal façade constructed by the ancients” he stated at a speech in Dallas in 1998, noting that it is often difficult to find the right words to talk about sexuality in ancient times “…Gay’ is too loaded. ‘Homosexual is too modern, so you have to speak in terms of their relationship to one another” He said.

Although their ancient ancestors were known for their sexual customs, which included incest to keep the royal blood pure, current Egyptian laws that ban any homosexual activity, have made it impossible for gay tourist operators to target the site.

Thomas Dowson, an independent scholar formerly at Manchester University, told The Sunday Times: “I have absolutely no problem if we have evidence of same-sex unions in the past that is used to challenge the homophobia of our society today, though that doesn’t mean we play fast and loose with the data.”

The tomb was restored by German Archeologists in the late 1970’s, opened to the public in 1990 and ever since has attracted a lot of gay tourists.

“I think it is beautiful, but if it became too big, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Egyptian authorities closed it down,” Dowson said.

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