Were Overseers of Royal Manicurists Gay Lovers, Twins, or Conjoined?

There is a debate brewing in Egyptology circles and beyond over a pair of overseers of royal manicurists from ancient Egypt who are depicted on an Old Kingdom decorated tomb chapel dating to the 5th Dynasty. The debate centers around two opposing theories that contradict each other. If you accept one, then one must deny the other; were these two ancient Egyptians twins or gay lovers?

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, the overseers of royal manicurists, have been the subject of significant debate for at least 20 years; their chapel is unusual because rather than being dedicated to one individual, it’s dedicated to two; the wall space available for the chapel’s scenes and texts is equally divided between the two men; and the prominent depictions of the two men in physically intimate poses-representations of handholding and embracing-on the chapel walls is unusual.

There is no clear evidence from mummified remains or by way of inscriptions in the tomb to decisively confirm either a biological connection or a love interest between the two men, so the answer may never be known for sure, and the debate could continue. But while the outcome is still unknown, this unlikely Old Kingdom pair is having an impact beyond the grave.

If one accepts the idea that they are twins, this would be of major significance in the history of medicine. Twins were rarely referred to in ancient Egypt before 1000 B.C. Medical historians would be especially interested. One needn’t look any further for proof of this than the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt.

The possibility that the royal manicurists were gay lovers is of great significance to today’s gay rights movement and to the history of homosexuality as evidence of the oldest example of a gay couple in antiquity. There has already been considerable interest outside of Egyptology as the theory has become better known.

David O’Connor, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Art and co-director, Excavations at Abydos, Egypt, believes that the indirect evidence suggests the men were twins, which was originally suggested by John Baines of Oxford University in 1985. But then he goes on to further postulate that the visual record left behind of physical closeness, which may imply emotional intimacy, can also be explained by the notion that not only were the men born as twins but were conjoined or “Siamese” twins as well.

An opposing view is held by Greg Reeder, contributing editor of KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, who interprets the iconography of the tomb as portraying affectionate men in intimate embrace. He believes that the representations of the two men are depicted much like those of perceived hetero-normative couples of the 4th, 5th and 6th Dynasties.

O’Connor and Reeder are presenting their theories at a two-day conference entitled Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt at the University of Wales Swansea, UK, which began yesterday and ends today, December 20, 2005.

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