2400 B.C. In the ancient Egyptian city of Saqqara, two royal court male "manicurists" are buried together in a joint tomb much like any other married couple during Egypt's Fifth Dynasty. Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are strongly speculated to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history.
It is the only known tomb where two men are displayed holding hands and holding each other in the most conspicuous depiction of a nose-to-nose embrace. The ancient pose representing a kiss, is supposedly the most intimate pose that was allowed in canonical Egyptian art (and one almost always portrayed by husbands and wives).
Are they the first recorded same-sex couple? Is it the first recorded "gay" kiss? Some people think so!
That's what the headlines said in 1998, when the tomb was rediscovered or "reclaimed" by Egyptologist David Reeder. "Gay is too loaded. Homosexual is too modern, so you have to speak in terms of their relationship to one another" Reeder noted at the time. What was basically missing from the headlines was the fact that these were two men living in Africa in an early multicultural society, and that they themselves were probably black, or otherwise "of color."
When Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's tomb was originally discovered by archeologists in 1964, scholars were initially stumped on how to interpret what was found. Also especially silent were the die-hard Egyptologists and devotees of all things BLACK!
"Europeans have claimed the non-African creation of Egypt in order to downgrade the position of African people in world history! They have laid the foundation of what they call Western Civilization on a structure that the Western mind did not create" says respected historian and Egyptologist, Dr. John Henrik Clark. And so it was that the African was written out of the history of Egypt! Found in the tomb of Ramses III is a mural depiction of how the early Egyptians saw themselves. The first image on the "mural of the races" is their image of self, the second is Semetic, the third is of "other Africans" and the last one is their depiction of Europeans. You figure it out!
Due to the extreme closeness of the two men, some thought they were brothers. Others went so far as to suggest they were co-joined twins. It is known that Niankhkhnum had a wife, who is depicted sitting behind him in a banquet scene on the walls of the tomb. But, in other pivotal scenes in the tomb, Khnumhotep occupies the place normally associated with that of the wife.
In fact, in hieroglyphs, Niankhkhnum means "joined in life" and Khnumhotep means "joined to the blessed state of the dead" and together the names can be translated as "joined in life and joined in death." It is also from the heiroglyphs that we know these two men were the "overseers of the manicurists to the pharoah." They were responsible for the care of the pharoah's hands and were among the select few permitted to touch the ruler. Very few people got tombs built in their honor, and it usually took special recognition from the pharoah, or a high-ranking religious leader to get one completed. In more recent times, their tomb has more commonly become known as the "tomb of the two hairdressers."
David O'Connor, once the professor of ancient Egyptian art at New York University's institute of Fine Arts didn't quite buy into the suggestion that the two men were lovers. "The artists adapted the visual language relevant to emotional and perhaps sometimes sexual intimacy to express an extremely rare fraternal circumstance" he offered while acknowledging the paintings did show a physical connection.
One can't help but wonder what the ancient tomb artists were thinking when they added a depiction in the tomb that would further discombobulate future historians? In one corner a dog-like animal mounts another dog-like animal from behind. The copulating animals drawn on the wall of the tomb do not make a dramatic impression; they could very easily be missed! It certainly does not add a note of "procreativity" or heterosexuality in an already heavily homoerotic tomb. The animals depicted in the scene might be hyenas or jackals, which have long been used as a symbol of gender confusion.
However, it is the only depiction of a sex act in the tomb, and it raised the question of why it was depicted in the first place. Some more enlightened scholars have suggested that it's a modest or humorous representation of the type of intercourse preferred by the two tomb owners.
The tomb, discovered in 1964, was restored in the 1970's and opened to the public in the 1990's. Since Egypt now outlaws homosexual activity, gay tour operators have not particularly targeted the site. Still, Mr. Reeded has noted that lots of gay tourists regularly visit the tomb, which is opened only on prior request.
I believe Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's embrace was meant to last throughout eternity. Niankhkhnum is on the right grasping his companion's right forearm, while Khnumhotep is on the left, his left arm across the other man's back, tightly clasping his shoulder. The tips of their noses are touching, and the torsos are so close together that the knots on the belts of their kilts appear to be tied. Tied up, liplocked and locked in love for the last four thousand years, I believe Niahkhkhnum and Khnumhotep's embrace was meant to last throughout eternity.