Thursday, 3 December 2015


Manicurists and Royal confidantes Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep

If I weren’t a journalist, I’d be an archaeologist. Both jobs are about bringing to life the stories of other human beings separated only by time, culture and geography.

One of my favourite stories from Ancient Egypt lies in the sandblasted necropolis of Saqqara, beneath the crumbling pyramid of King Unas, the ninth and last pharoah of the Fifth Dynasty, who ruled Egypt from roughly 2375 to 2345 BC.

I only learned after visiting his tomb many years ago that beneath the causeway to the pyramid lies the Old Kingdom tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep whose bas reliefs depict what is (to date) the world’s first recorded adult homo love story. And in a fabulously queer twist, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were – wait for it! – gay manicurists (yes, you read right) in the palace of King Niuserre (2453 to 2422 BC) of the Fifth Dynasty!

So, some years later, I tracked down respected non-academic Egyptologist Greg Reeder, a contributing editor of KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt who wrote a chapter on Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in the 2008 book Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: ‘Don Your Wig for a Joyful Hour’ edited by Carolyn Graves-Brown (Classical Press of Wales 2008). 

“It’s the only tomb I know that has two men posing as husband and wife,” Reeder told me. “That’s what’s key to my research of tombs from the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth dynasties. The Ancient Egyptians frowned on anal penetration, much like the Greeks and Romans; you weren’t a man if you were penetrated. What’s unusual about the Fifth Dynasty when these two manicurists lived was the openness to showing [such] affection in public.”

Egyptologist Greg Reeder – like me – never tires of telling the story of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.

“Most archaeologists are not interested in Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep,” says Reeder. “I think it will take gay archaeologists to speak up. We must speak up. These are our ancestors. The straight world isn’t going to make a big deal about it because they just aren’t interested in it.”

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