Mastaba of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep embrace (via Wikimedia Commons)

Many have been intrigued by the lore surrounding Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, who served Fifth Dynasty pharaoh King Niuserre as manicurists and “royal confidants,” according to hieroglyphics on their tomb. Built in 2400 BCE in their honor, the tomb is one of the largest and most intricately decorated in the Saqqara necropolis, and the incredible preservation of its contents has also established an argument that these two, interred together in an embrace, are the oldest documented gay couple in history (though they both still claim to turn 35 every year).

Among those captivated by their story is Angel Manson, a Michigan-based illustrator who portrayed the couple in their digital artwork “Joined in Life” (2021), part of a series dedicated to the occluded histories of queer people of color.

“Niankhumn and Khnumhotep were two male lovers who were buried together in a joint tomb in Saqqara, Egypt,” Manson told Hyperallergic. “Their epigraph reads ‘Joined in life, joined in death.’ I created this piece to capture the love and intimacy the two shared, and show that Black, queer love is as old as time itself.”

Angel Manson, “Joined in Life” (2021), digital illustration, part of a series illustrating the occluded histories of queer people of color (image courtesy Angel Mason)

Discovered by Egyptologists in 1964, murals on the tomb depict the two men in a pose traditionally reserved for husband and wife. One panel features an embrace with noses touching — a pose of marital intimacy within the lexicon of Egyptian art. Homosexuality was not uncommon in Ancient Egypt, and clearly their relationship was both approved of by the pharaoh and close enough to call for co-burial — though the exact nature of their partnership is debated by historians, who make various cases based on the imagery in the tomb.

A 2016 article by Linda Evans and Alexandra Woods presents the case that the two men were perhaps twins, based on recent re-examinations of the tomb’s decorative motifs, which have “revealed a significant number of paired images in which scenes or elements of a motif ‘mirror’ one another.” They are not the first to argue that the couple were siblings rather than romantic partners, citing other panels in the tombs that indicate the men had wives and children — though it goes without saying that marital or familial status is not exclusive to homosexual relationships, socially sanctioned or otherwise.

Other researchers deem it likely that the pair were romantically connected, invoking many panels that feature them next to each other, holding hands, sitting together, standing nose-to-nose, or embracing in a way that was most often used to depict a married couple. In these tableaux, Khnumhotep is generally positioned in the spot typically reserved for the wife, sometimes accompanied by symbols traditionally associated with women, such as the “knot of Isis” or Tyet. There is gender-ambiguous terminology used to describe both men, and an implication of intimacy in their names, which were assigned nicknames rather than birth names: Both refer to Khnum, the Egyptian god of fertility.

Despite these indicators, the tomb is still often referred to as “The Tomb of Two Brothers,” with historians going as far as to suggest that they were not only twins, but physically conjoined, so as to explain their constant closeness and their enigmatic epigraph. But some attribute this conclusion to a pervasive bias against LGBTQ+ individuals that manifests even in academic research. As Making Queer History points out: “If a man and woman shared the tomb, the conclusion of a romantic relationship would have been reached immediately. No one would have suggested fraternal conjoined twins, loving siblings, or friendly colleagues.”

Recognizing the loving and normalized existence of queer relationships throughout human existence is all the more reason to celebrate discoveries like this with pride.

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This week, the Getty Museum is returning ancient terracottas to Italy, parsing an antisemitic mural at Documenta, an ancient gold find in Denmark, a new puritanism, slavery in early Christianity, and much more.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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