KHNUMHOTEP AND NIANHKKHNUM
The relationship between KhnumHotep and NiankhKhnumn has been one of speculation since their tomb was discovered in 1964. Were they brothers, lovers, or identical twins? They were not of nobility but they were highly esteemed officials in the Palace of King NiusserRe Ini, sixth ruler of the 5th Dynasty. They lived from approximately 2380 to 2320 BC and were buried at the Old Kingdom necropolis of Saqqara.
Their shared tomb was located by the cause-way of the Pyramid of Unas in proximity to the tombs and mastabas of royalty and high officials. No mummies or burial remains of the two men were found in the tomb and there is no written information revealing their actual relationship.
These two men share titles and jobs, for example they were Overseers of Manicurists of the Palace, Intimates of the King, Privy to Secrets and Sun priests in the Solar temple of the King. The relief scenes in the tomb show the two men in a very intimate relationship. In the inner sanctuary they are embracing and facing each other touching noses – the closest act of intimacy permitted in relief art of the time to indicate a kiss.
On the other hand, each man had his own separate false door in the inner sanctuary indicating they were separate individuals each with his own ka to come and go from this world to the next. Both men had a wife and children. The eldest sons were scribes and judges and honoured by their fathers. The name of NiAnhkKhnum’s wife was KhetiKawes and the couple shown with three sons and three daughters. His eldest son Hem-Ra, is shown with his wife Tjeset and their son, Irin-Ankheti. KhnumHotep’s wife is named Khenut and it would appear that they had five sons and a daughter.
Scenes show the two families enjoying ceremonial leisure activities, like hunting in the marches. In one scene, KhnumHotep is fishing with a spear while NiAnkhKhnum is stunning birds with a throw stick. They are of equal stature and mirror each other’s pose. In many of the reliefs, the men were placed together in stylised representations usually reserved for husband and wife.
What can we deduce from this information?
A number of views have been put forward by Egyptologists and historians interested in this unusual tomb. John Baines, an archaeologist with the University of Oxford, England, along with most Egyptologists, adheres to the view that the men were normal identical twins. David O’Conner, professor of ancient Egyptian art at the N.Y.U. Institute of Fine Arts supports this popular theory and likewise refutes the more controversial suggestion that they were conjoined twins.
Greg Reeder, an independent scholar, supports the possibility that the two men were homosexual.
This last suggestion that the men were homosexuals is very easy to assume, taking into account the obvious love shared between the two men. However, there is the danger of placing modern interpretations on ancient societies and such an approach can be misleading. Allusions to homosexuality in ancient Egyptian literature can be interpreted in a number of ways.
For example, a tale from the late New Kingdom in which Pepi II Neferkare of the 6th Dynasty and last king of the Old Kingdom visits his General Sasenet at night. This is more likely a reference to the Kushite Pharaoh Shabaka of the 25th Dynasty in an allegory about the night-time journey of Ra visiting Osiris. Another reference to homosexuality is the myth concerning the seduction of Horus by Seth found in the Kahun Papyrus. It is clear that the reason for this act is not love but jealousy and anger. Consequently, there is no clear reference in Egyptian literature of how homosexuals were viewed in this society. As ancient Egyptian society appeared to be liberal toward differences, this tomb could be evidence that homosexuality was not considered a base or a criminal act.
The view that NiankhKhnum and Khnumhotep were identical twins has convincing evidence. We know the men, as Overseers of the Manicurists of the Palace, were socially and emotionally linked and in trusted positions close to the king. As identical twins they probably would have been treated with special respect.
It is a fact that some individuals displaying unique differences, such as dwarfism, were considered divinely endowed and assigned to high positions for example the Dwarf Seneb. Seneb was `Overseer of dwarfs in charge of dressing the king’ and ‘Tutor to the Royal Sons”. Similarly, identical twins with the same skills, and possibly shared psychic and physical similarities, would have been considered highly desirable as royal officials. As Dr O’Conner hypothesises, “A King felt more elevated for having these singular creatures to serve him as manicurists”.
The proposal of conjoined twins is the most unlikely as any attempt to separate the twins surgically would probably not have been successful. The two men were not depicted as attached physically and there is speculation that KhnumHotep died before NiAnkhKhnum. If tis is the case, the surviving twin would have not lived long after his brother’s death.
As we do not have sufficient information about the men we cannot be certain about any one interpretation. To confirm that the men were either identical twins or same sex partners requires further information and neither suggestion can be claimed at fact. Clearly, the two men loved each other and by demonstrating their mutual affection they were stating their desire to remain together in the next life.
Evens, L. and Woods A.. Further evidence that Niankh-khnum and Khnum-Hotep were twins.
Reeder, G. Same-sex desire, conjugal constructs and the tomb of Niankh-khnum and Khnum-Hotep.
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