The First Gay Couple Recorded in History Dates All the Way Back to Ancient Egypt
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About 20 miles south of Cairo lies Saqqara, the vast necropolis and pyramid field of Egypt’s first capital, Memphis. This is where the tomb of what may be the first gay couple in recorded history lies, dating all the way back to 2400 BC. Discovered in 1964, the tomb of royal manicurists Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum “depicts two men in a manner usually reserved for husband and wife.”
The claim that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are recorded history’s first gay couple has been met with considerable debate. Some historians instead insist the two men were brothers, possibly even twins. Yet there is little evidence confirming that theory. Though their wives and children are also depicted in the tombs, there are no images of either man embracing them. In fact, “repeated depictions of the two men embracing have convinced many that their intimate relationship might have been accepted by their respective wives.”
An ancient Egypt that embraced queerness is not difficult to imagine, and we can discern from hints in texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead as well as mythology that this might have been the case. However, misinterpretations do occur, and Egypt has often suffered from the colonial lens: “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.”
Yet it’s safe to say that if a man and a woman were depicted in the way that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are, the conclusion would be simple — and most likely not even up for debate.
“One thing is certain: two men of equal social standing being buried together in the same tomb — in spite of the fact that they were undoubtedly married to women — was unique,” says this article about the queerness of Ancient Egypt. “That this remarkably preserved archeological find is one of the largest and most beautifully decorated tombs in the Saqqara necropolis also suggests that whatever the nature of their relationship, the pharaoh approved of it because tombs of this caliber were enormously expensive.”
What is very clear is that the pair were trusted and valuable members of the pharoah’s inner sanctum. They oversaw the manicurists, were given the rare privilege to touch the king and seemed to be guardians of his secrets as well — as indicated by the inscriptions on their shared tomb. And it seems that despite the existence of wives and children, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum wanted to spend the afterlife together. If that isn’t an indicator of romance, we don’t know what is.
What do you think of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum? Were they the first gay couple in recorded history, or just brothers?
This article was originally published on March 21, 2021. It has since been updated.