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Ancient Egyptian
images: Gay couple or conjoined twins?

Ancient Egyptian
images: Gay couple or conjoined twins?

An expert in Egyptian history says an ancient wall carving thought to be of a gay couple may actually depict conjoined twins.

A wall carving discovered in an Egyptian tomb four decades ago was first made controversial by archeologists who later argued the image of two men embracing represented an ancient depiction of homosexuality. Now a renewed debate surrounds the image, as one Egyptologist argues it's not a gay relationship represented by the stone carving but a pair of Siamese twins.

According to a report in The New YorkTimes, it was in 1964, outside Cairo, near the famous Step Pyramid in the necropolis of Saqqara and a short drive from the Sphinx and the breathtaking pyramids at Giza, that a newfound tomb yielded the wall art in its most sacred chamber. The image of two men together included their names inscribed above: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Though not of the nobility, they were highly esteemed in the palace as the chief manicurists of the king, sometime from 2380 to 2320 B.C., in the time known as the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Grooming the king was an honored occupation.

Archaeologists were taken aback, reports the Times. It was extremely rare in ancient Egypt for an elite tomb to be shared by two men of apparently equal standing. And it was most unusual for a couple of the same sex to be depicted locked in an embrace. In other scenes, they are also shown holding hands and nose-kissing, the favored form of kissing in ancient Egypt. Over the years, the tomb's wall art has been subjected to learned analysis, inspiring considerable speculation. One interpretation is that the two men are brothers, probably identical twins, and this may be the earliest known depiction of twins. Another is that the men had a gay relationship, a more recent view that has gained support.

Now an Egyptologist at New York University has stepped into the debate with a third interpretation. He has marshaled circumstantial evidence that the two men may have been conjoined twins, popularly known as Siamese twins. The expert, David O'Connor, a professor of ancient Egyptian art at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, said, ''My suggestion is that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were indeed twins, but of a very special sort. They were conjoined twins, and it was this physical peculiarity that prompted the many depictions of them hand-holding or embracing in their tomb-chapel.''

The gay-couple hypothesis has become the popular idea in the last decade. A leading proponent is Greg Reeder, an independent scholar in San Francisco and a contributing editor of KMT, a magazine of Egyptian art and history. The most Google references to the tomb, archaeologists say, concern the gay theory.

The gay argument, first suggested by French archaeologist Nadine Cherpion, draws parallels between Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep and depictions of married heterosexual couples in Egyptian art. Because the embraces of heterosexual couples in tomb art convey an implicit erotic and sexual relationship--and perhaps the belief of its continuation in the afterlife--Reeder and his allies contend that similar scenes involving the two men have the same significance and that they presumably are gay partners. ''They are so close together here that not only are they face to face and nose to nose, but so close that the knots on their belts are touching, linking their lower torsos," Reeder told the Times. "If this scene were composed of a male-female couple instead of the same-sex couple we have here, there would be little question concerning what it is we are seeing.'' When asked about O'Connor's new interpretation, Reeder said it was fascinating but added, ''It's the most extreme and unnecessary theory.'' (

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