The Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara in Egypt

The Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep
At Saqqara

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in an intimate embrace

The Mastaba of Niankhkhnum (meaning "life belongs to Khnum") and Khnumhotep (meaning "Khnum is satisfied"), dating to the mid 5th Dynasty and probably either to the reign of Niusserre or Menkauhor, is located in the sector of the Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara. It is unusual, having been built for two officials, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. They shared the same titles as "Prophet of Ra in the Sun Temple of Niusserre", and "Heads of the Manicurists of the Great House".

This tomb, which is popularly know as the "Tomb of the Hairdressers" but also as "The Tomb of Two Brothers", has been the subject of some debate. Throughout the tomb, the two men appear together and sometimes in intimate embraces. According to Zahi Hawass, and therefore the official explanation, they were brothers and probably twins, though there is really little evidence for the latter. However, others have speculated as to their relationship, even suggesting that they may have been gay companions, though this hardly seems likely given the depictions of their wives and family within the tomb.

The two brothers gathering papyrus

This tomb was only discovered in 1964 by archaeologists and Chief Inspector Mounir Basta, under the ramp of Unas, which had to be breached in order to reach the tomb. Meanwhile archaeologists working on the restoration of the causeway of Unas discovered that some of the stone blocks that had been used to build the causeway had been appropriated in ancient times from the mastaba.

Ground plan of the tomb

This is one of the largest and most beautiful tombs in the entire necropolis at Saqqara, and has a complex structure, having been changed and enlarged several times during its construction. The oldest part of the tomb, a chapel, was actually carved into the rock, while three rooms with a courtyard were later added using blocks of stone.

The entrance to this tomb leads into the first vestibule with two piers inscribed with the names and titles of the owners. Here, the two owners and the funeral procession are depicted. The side walls on the east and west depict in parallel an episode from the funerary ceremonies. On the west, the funerary barque transporting a cult statue of Niankhkhnum to the necropolis is depicted, while on the east, that of Khnumhotep is shown.

The south wall of the vestibule shows a number of scenes. here, we find the deceased in front of their respective offering tables. Niankhkhnum is on the right and Khnumhotep on the left, facing each other. Between them, two groups, each of two servants, carve up the sacrificial animals. Underneath this scene is an offering formula, which also supplies us with a list of feast days when the funerary cult should be performed.

Fishing scene with nets

There is also a beautiful scene of fishing with nets and harpoons. Niankhkhnum is on the right and Khnumhotep on the left, each portrayed on an heroic scale on a small papyrus boat. One is spearing two fishes with his double harpoon, while the other brings down flying birds with his throw-stick. Between these two groups, the extraordinary richness of the marshes is depicted. Among the various fish, which are depicted very realistically, one can identify a large Tilapia nilotica and Lates niloticus. Another scenes depicts the two men cutting papyrus in the swamplands.

The first vestibule leads through a short corridor into two additional rooms, of which only the first is decorated. Within the corridor, the most interesting scenes concern the transport of statues of the deceased. Here, the right hand (west) wall is devoted to Niankhkhnum and the left (east) wall to Khnumhotep.

A scene in the corridor between the first vestibule and the first room

After this corridor, in the first of the two chambers, many scenes are depicted in bas-relief. On the north entrance wall we find the two brothers, each accompanied by his eldest son

On the west wall of the entrance, spread amongst six registers, are scenes depicting baking and cooking. In the first three scenes, we find the barley being measured out in the granary and being noted by a scribe and the overseer of the warehouse. In the next three registers, the grain is ground and cleaned. We see a young woman warming up the cone shaped bread moulds and the actual baking of the bread. Near the bottom, we also find a scene depicting the brewing of beer based on barley and date liquor.

On the north wall, the brothers are shown once again in a scene that argues against the two men having an alternate relationship. Here, we find Khnumhotep and a boy describes as his son, Ptahshepses on the right, and on the left, Niankhkhnum with his son. They are watching, among other activities, the main stages in building a boat. Here, two woodsmen chop down an acacia tree. It is then squared and moved to the boatyard, where the boat is being built by carpenters. On the east side of the north wall, not surprisingly, we find scenes depicting manicurists, pedicurists and barbers. On the right a manicurist and pedicurist are at work, while a scribe awaits his turn. An overseer is having his fingernails done and his pose represents a most unusual one for Egyptian art. He is depicted from the front, sitting cross-legged, with only his head in profile. The left side of this register depicts the activities of a barber. These representations are followed below by market scenes, also fairly rare in Old Kingdom art.

On the east wall we once again find the two tomb owners, seated side by side. Here the texts is a contractual arrangement for the funerary foundation and reads:

"The chief manicurists of Pharaoh, venerated close to the great god, Niankhkhnum and Knumhotep declare: 'As for these colleagues, these funerary priests who will carry out the offerings in the necropolis, we cannot allow that they prevail upon the children of our two wives nor on any other person, because they alone must make the offering for us and for our fathers and mothers and for those who are in the necropolis. As for any funerary priests who shall sell his part of the office to any other person, all the benefits that he has been given shall be reclaimed and re-distributed to the other funerary priests in his phyle. As for any funerary priests who undertakes another contract, all the benefits he has been given shall be withdrawn, to be re-distributed to the funerary priests in his phyle. As for any funerary priests who shall commence legal proceedings against the funerary priests of his colleague... his portion, whatever it may be, shall be withdrawn and credited to the funerary priests against whom he began proceedings. This we have decreed for your benefit so that the offerings shall function smoothly for the Spirits, for the lords of the endowment and for those in the necropolis

Doorway with brothers and sons to either side

The doorway to the second chamber (south wall) is beautifully decorated with a representation of a "rolled up mat" door-covering carved from stone. The two owners face each other across the doorway in a double-scene. Here, we find Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum with their sons once again.

west wall of this room communicates with a courtyard. On this wall is a relatively rare scene of hunting in the desert. Within the corridor leading to the courtyard, the south wall is devoted to Niankhkhnum while the north wall is devoted to Khnumhotep.

On the south end of the courtyard is the entrance to the rock cut portion of the tomb, beginning with a small second vestibule. Here in the doorway of the second vestibule, the names and titles of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are again shown with portrayals of the two men below. On the inner lintel the owners are shown with men bringing cattle for their inspection.

The wall on the left-hand side of the doorway (east) shows Khnumhotep with his wife, Khenut, who was 'Prophetess of Hathor, Mistress of the Sycamore'. On the right (west) Niankhkhnum is seen with his wife Khentkaus, of the same title. On the south wall we also find a depiction of the deceased standing with their sons.

Bringing cattle for the deceased's inspection

Through a short passage, this second vestibule leads into a long, rectangular chapel oriented north-south. There is a small room to the west for offerings is attached to the larger rectangular room.

The northern part of the east wall of the chapel is decorated with bas reliefs that depict agricultural and handicraft scenes, including rendering accounts, filling granaries, winnowing and measuring corn and depictions of the flax-harvest.

Two artists sculpting a statue

The crafts scenes, located on the southern section of the east wall, depict sculptors, metal-workers, carpenters and jewelers. These scenes are very interesting. First we find two artists sculpting an upright statue with chisel and mallet. Here, we also find four metal works fanning a furnace to melt metal using reed blow pipes sleeved with clay. There are also several goldsmiths melting gold in a bell-shaped container, and we are told that this will be for the funerary furniture. Several pieces of funerary equipment are depicted, such as a sekhem sceptre and a staff, which goldsmith are overlaying with gold sheet. The last two artists in this register are constructing a funerary diadem. In the third register, we find the jewelers and carpenters. In one scene, a broad gold collar is being strung together and then washed. Next the we find the carpenters working on wooden funerary furniture along with a djed pillar.

Men using tubs to heat a metal working furnace

At the southern end of this chamber the tomb owners are shown enjoying offerings of food in a banqueting scene, entertained by musicians, singers and dancers. On the section of the west wall between the two openings that lead to the offerings room there is also a beautiful depiction of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep embracing each other affectionately, with two registers of their children on either side. An unfinished false door is shown at the bottom of the wall.

On either sides of the doorways there are lists of oils and scenes of offering-bringing. The two men's families accompany the men into the offering chamber in scenes of fishing and fowling, tending cattle and a number of boatmen are shown enjoying jousting games. Inside the final offering chamber on the reverse side of the entrance pillar the tomb-owners are again shown closely embracing with arms around each other. On the western wall there are two false door stelae. That of Niankhkhnum on the left is very damaged by a robbers tunnel dug in antiquity and it was through this tunnel that archaeologists first entered the tomb. At the foot of these false doors, an offering table inscribed with the owner's name, serves as a specific site for the performance of the cult.

One of the brothers receiving offerings

Between the false doors the two are again shown in an embrace. Symmetrical scenes on the north and south walls of the chamber depict bearers bringing offerings to each of the owners, with offering-lists and butchers. The offering list includes: "A thousand loaves, a thousand jugs of beer, a thousand joints of meat, a thousand birds, a thousand alabaster vases, a thousand rools of cloth, a thousand vases of "merhet" oil, a thousand of every good thing every day".


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Art of Ancient Egypt, The Robins, Gay 1997 Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-00376-4
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries) Lehner, Mark 1997 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05084-8
Early Dynastic Egypt Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 1999 Routledge ISBN 0-415-26011-6
Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 825 2
Treasures of the Pyramids, The Hawass, Zahi 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 798 1