Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were two Egyptians who were interred together in the same mastaba (mausoleum) around 2600 BCE. Murals and inscriptions on the tomb show two men intimately close in life, and who wished to continue that intimacy after death. Since the iconography of their portraits resembles that of wife and husband, the tomb is cited as evidence of a same-sex romantic relationship in classical Egypt.
The mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum was found in Saqqara, Egypt in 1964. Attempts to explain the men as anything other than lovers was premised upon the presence of children and wives in wall paintings. The prevailing scenario was that they were brothers, possibly twins or even conjoined twins, but such assumptions leave out the purposeful portrayal of the two men as devoted to each other more so than to their own wives. In addition, there are no references to them as kinfolk, and the possibility of them being conjoined twins is undermined by evidence that one man died years after the other.
Having wives and children would be expected of them, since it was the children who would perform rites for the dead when they passed. Several societies, such as the Hausa in West Africa and Southern Chinese (the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong) in East Asia, have traditions that tolerate same-sex erotic-romantic relationships, while still insisting that those relationships not negate the responsibility to create a heteronormal family.
The lengths to which many scholars went to establish the heteronormal nature of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’s relationship without acknowledging the possibility that they may have been romantically attached to each other reflect more about the homophobic mindset of the Egyptologists in question than rigorous scholarly appraisal of the two men and their shared household.
Life and Afterlife
For ancient Egyptians, life continued after death, and it was important to compose one’s remains in such a way as to guarantee favorable conditions in the next world. Mummification took care of the body, but more had to be done. Tombs were designed to protect the body and to create a proper environment for the soul. This was done through spells and wall images showing the soul in an ideal afterlife. As part of afterlife iconography, couples would be portrayed in their shared tombs so they could spend eternity together.
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep shared the title of “Royal Overseer of Manicurists to the Pharaoh” during the reign of Niuserre in the Fifth Dynasty. They were placed together in a mastaba decorated with pictures celebrating their love for one another.
Some of the images show them with their wives and children. But the close proximity of their bodies in the same tomb indicate a relationship similar to husband and wife. Their names, Niankhkhnum (“Joined to Life”) and Khnumhotep (“Joined to the Blessed State of Peace/the Dead”) can be read together as “Joined in Life and Death.” Most telling is an image of the men in which their noses touch, the equivalent of a kiss, as they embrace, with their respective children on either side of them. Wives are absent from this image. Iconographic signs of husband-as-superior and wife-as-supportive are also absent except in some pictures where Khnnumhotep occupies a position typically reserved for a wife. Because the men are visually represented as identical in height, age, color (women were typically portrayed with lighter skin than men), and rank as overseers of the royal manicurists, neither is assigned a definitively inferior or supportive role, unlike the typical husband and wife.
Harpur, Yvonne and Paolo J Scremin. The Chapel of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep: Scene Details. Reading, Britain: Harpur Scremin Ltd., 2010.
Wendrich, Willeke. Egyptian Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.