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The Embrace of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Reproduction Details

  • Type: Tomb painting (reconstructed)

  • Date: Dynasty 5, reign of Nyuserre Ini, c. 2445-2421 BC

  • Findspot: Mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, Saqqara Necropolis

  • Print Reference: DP50A


Located in the Saqqara Necropolis beneath the causeway to the Pyramid of Unas stands the shared mastaba tomb of Khnumhotep ("Khnum is satisfied") and Niankhkhnum ("life belongs to Khnum"). They lived during the reign of Dynasty 5 king Niussere Ini around 2500 BC and both served in his palace as royal confidants and servants dedicated to the purification of the king's body. They held many titles, among them overseers of manicurists and hairdressers and would have had close daily contact with the king.

On the western wall of the outer hall of their tomb is a striking portrayal of the two men in close embrace, their noses touching in a pose that is the most intimate allowed in Egyptian art. This kind of embrace is extremely rare, even with representations of the deceased embracing their wife or mothers with their children. This has led many to speculate on the relationship of the two men; were they brothers? Twins? Lovers? If the latter was true, they would be the first same-sex couple recorded in history, but there is still considerable debate. Scholars opposing the theory point to the depictions of both men’s children and wives in scenes in the tomb and believe the symmetry of their portrayal and their shared titles are strong evidence they were twins.

In this scene we see Niankhkhnum on the right standing slightly in front of Khnumhotep and grasping his arm, whilst Khnumhotep’s arm is wrapped around Niankhkhnum’s shoulders. Although identical at first glance, the two men have subtly different facial features; Khnumhotep’s nose is straighter and pointier than Niankhkhnum’s, whose eyes and eyebrows are larger. Both men are showing with their natural hair and are wearing formal kilts with gilded belts and broad necklaces.

The inscription behind each gives their title as ‘Overseer of the palace hairdressers’ and their name, but Khnumhotep’s inscription also adds ‘as well as his children’. Beside each man are two registers depicting their children, with their names written above.

Niankhnum's Family

To the left of Niankhamun’s are his three sons (Hem-re, Qed-unas, and Khnumhezewef) and three daughters (Hemet-re, Khewiten-re and Nebet). They are all wearing formal clothes except Khnumhezewef, who is naked and has a sidelock of hair, indicating he is a young child. In other parts of the tomb, his wife Khentikawes is also shown.

From left to right, top register to bottom:

Qed-unas (son)

qd (w)n.s

Hemet-re (daughter)


Hem-re (son)


Khnumhezewef (son)


Nebet (daughter)


Khewiten-re (daughter)


Khnumhotep's Family

To the right of Khnumhotep we find his daughter Rewedzawes and five sons (Ptahshepses, Ptahneferkhu, Kaizebi, Khnumheswef and Niankhkhnum the younger). Whilst Ptahshepses, Ptahneferkhu and Rewedzawes are wearing the same formal clothing as Niankhamun’s children, the other three children are shown wearing simpler kilts. They are also accompanied by the hieroglyphs for a funerary offering, suggesting they were already awaiting their father in the afterlife. His wife Khenut isn’t shown, with Niankhkhnum taking her place.

From left to right, top register to bottom:

Ptahshepses (son)


Ptahneferkhu (son)

nfr-xw (w)- ptH

Rewedzawes (daughter)


Kaizebi (son, deceased?)

kA (.j) -zbj

Khnumheswef (son, deceased?)


Niankhkhnum the younger (son, deceased?)

nj-anx-xnmw nDs

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