In 1964, archaeologists in Egypt opened the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men who lived and died sometime around the year 2380 BCE. Inside, they would discover what might be the oldest evidence of queer lives in existence.
In the tomb, the two were depicted in many of the stereotypical ways that heterosexual couples were shown in Egyptian funereal art: kissing nose-to-nose, holding hands, and standing very closely together, almost in an embrace. Their wives (and children) are also depicted in the tombs, though curiously, there are no paintings of either man embracing or kissing their wife.
If a man and a woman were depicted in this way, they would obviously be interpreted as a couple. And so, faced with all this evidence, archaeologists leapt to the conclusion that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were... brothers — really, really close brothers. Possibly even conjoined twins (not that they are depicted as conjoined in the tomb at all — in fact, they are often depicted separately).
Jacklyn Lacey, who specializes in African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, is unsurprised about these interpretations. I can almost hear her eyes roll over the phone as she talks about the long history within the field of archaeology — “a discipline that has reproduced itself through the colonialist white male lens,” she says — of “explaining away things that appear queer.”
What is definitely known about Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep? They worked as chief manicurists to the Pharaoh in the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. This might sound like the set-up for a terrible gay remake of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but at the time, grooming the Pharoah was revered labor. Though they weren’t themselves nobility, it is clear from their tomb that the two men were of high status. And, curiously enough, they were of equal status, being depicted in complimentary activities without either being shown as smaller, lesser, or subservient to the other.
According to author Wael Fathi, this is far from the only allusion to queerness in Ancient Egyptian culture. For other examples, he cites the Egyptian Book of the Dead, written in 970 BCE (not to be confused with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, written sometime in the 8th century CE). Its female author writes, “I never had sex with a woman in the temple.” Who knew so much suggestion could be packed into the phrase “in the temple.” There are also numerous allusions to same-sex sexual activity and gender bending among the tales of Egyptian gods. And in the Book of Dreams (circa 1200 BCE), different fates are laid out for the woman who has sex with a married woman versus the one who has sex with a single woman.
Still and all, it would be historically inaccurate to talk about “gay Ancient Egyptians,” Lacey hastens to clarify, for two reasons. First, we’re dealing with small amounts of evidence, which makes it hard to interpret what, exactly, we’re seeing. It’s not strictly impossible that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep could have been especially close brothers, or even twins. As for the Book of the Dead, prominent men (and occasional women) paid to have versions written out specifically for them, and some have suggested that this particular version miscopied a line meant for a man into a text for a woman. Second, even when we do correctly identify a practice — say, of women having sex with one another outside of the temple — that doesn’t mean that that physical activity is correlated with the same kind of identity we know today as lesbianism. (For this reason, I prefer to use the word queer, as a way of gesturing towards a sexual or emotional practice that was unusual — no such other tombs of two men or two women have been yet identified — and outside the bounds of heterosexuality.)
Egyptian history is, in some ways, particularly prone to these problems of misinterpretation, because starting in the late 19th and early 20th century, “the country is basically excised out of the continent and moved into the Levant by Westerners,” according to Lacey. Over and over again, historians and archaeologists have contrasted Egyptians with Greeks and Romans, and have seen Egyptian practices through what we know from those cultures, rather than putting them in conversation with other African empires — even though, for example, we know that the 25th Dynasty of Egypt (aka the Kushite Empire) was actually a series of five Nubian rulers, who came from Northern Sudan. Lacey tells me that there is a persistent rumor among scholars who study Nubia that “there were entirely homosexual groups of men living in the kingdom of Kush,” though no one has ever isolated the source of those rumors, or proven or disproven them. Perhaps that’s because only a tiny fraction of the time, money, and effort that’s been spent on archaeology and ethnography in Egypt and the Mediterranean has ever been spent on other parts of Africa.
In fact, when the African Peoples hall opened at the American Museum of Natural History in 1960, it was the first major permanent museum exhibition to include Egypt with the rest of Africa. To this day, Lacey points out, this is a problem in most museums. “The Met has a Department of Africa, The Americas, and Oceania,” she says, “essentially combining four continents, but it also has a department of Egyptology.” And at the Brooklyn Museum, they have a collection of “Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art,” which mixes Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts.
Queer Egyptian history is thus caught in a double bind: it is rarely seen as queer, and rarely seen as African. Perhaps today, at a time when we are finally willing to accept an Afrofuturist fictive African empire that has nothing to do with the West, as audiences did with the record-breaking film Black Panther this weekend, we can extend our imaginations backwards and begin to imagine a past that sees Africa as an entire continent — one in conversation with Mediterranean cultures, but not the same as them.