Since I recently wrote a post that touched on the topic of women’s roles in ancient Egypt, I thought sharing this news story would be apt. It discusses the tomb of a family who lived during the Old Kingdom (the time of the pyramids, hundreds of years before Khnumhotep and Tjat lived) and the unusual level of closeness it seems to depict between Kahai and his wife Meretites. I look forward to seeing the recently published book on the tomb, which includes full-color photographs of its decoration.
The tomb at Saqqara [of Kahai] — which held this couple, their children and possibly their grandchildren — has now been studied and described by researchers at Macquarie University‘s Australian Center for Egyptology. Among the scenes depicted is a relief painting showing the couple gazing into each other’s eyes, with Meretites placing her right hand over Kahai’s right shoulder.
Such a display of affection was extraordinary for Egypt during the Pyramid Age. Only a few examples of a face-to-face embrace survive from the Old Kingdom (2649 B.C. to 2150 B.C.), the time period when the couple lived and pyramid building thrived, said Miral Lashien, a researcher at Macquarie University. “I think that this indicates very special closeness,” Lashien told LiveScience in an email.
This scene, along with other works of art recorded in the tomb, suggest that women in Pyramid Age Egypt enjoyed a greater level of equality than some scholars believe. “The tomb of Kahai is an example of the importance of women,” wrote Lashien in the email. “The frequency of their representations and the equal size to their husbands or brothers suggest equal status.”
- Photos: Egyptian Tomb Dating to Age of the Pyramids (livescience.com)
- Pyramid Age love story comes to life in Egyptian tomb’s vivid color (nbcnews.com)
- Pyramid-Age Love Revealed in Vivid Color in Egyptian Tomb (livescience.com)
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
The cliffs of Beni Hasan. Note the modern staircase on the right side, which leads to the level of the tombs of the nomarchs (local administrators). The tops of the doorways into the tombs are just visible from this angle. Image copyright Melinda Nelson-Hurst.
For a view from the air, see this pin in Google Maps.
The Khnumhotep family at Beni Hasan is well-known among scholars who work on the period of the Middle Kingdom and tourists who have visited Middle Egypt in modern times. The beautifully preserved decoration on the tomb chapels at this site has attracted a steady flow of visitors over hundreds of years. One of the best preserved among the tombs at this site is that of Khnumhotep II, a member of the local elite and its most powerful family. His tomb is also discussed quite often because of its unique scene of “Asiatic” traders, who have been variously interpreted as people from the Near East or nomads of the eastern desert of Egypt.
Line drawing of the scene of Asiatics in the tomb of Khnumhotep II (Newberry, Beni Hasan I, pl. XXXI)
Although less well known to tourists, the woman named Tjat who appears in the chapel wall decoration within this tomb at Beni Hasan has been mentioned frequently in scholarly works on the Middle Kingdom. Despite the frequent mentions, other than one article by William Ward, no one has focused much attention on her. She clearly played an important role in Khnumhotep’s household, as she is shown three times in his tomb: in close proximity to Khnumhotep himself in the fowling scene, with Khnumhotep’s wife and daughters in a funerary cult meal scene, and inside the shrine, next to the doorway and a distance behind Khnumhotep’s daughters.
Line drawing of Khnumhotep’s wife Khety sitting by a table piled high with offerings for her afterlife. Behind her stand her three daughters, Tjat with two children, and a nurse (Newberry, Beni Hasan I, pl. XXXV).
Because Tjat appears in such important positions within the tomb and her two sons are referred to as “son of a count” (“count” being a title that Khnumhotep II held), scholars have assumed that Tjat was the mistress of Khnumhotep II and mother of two of his sons and one of his daughters. The same assumption is often made in discussions of other artifacts on which women without a clear relationship to the primary man are shown in somewhat prominent positions, but are we too quick to make such an assumption? In my work on Middle Kingdom families, and on the Khnumhotep family in particular, I began to realize just how quick we, as scholars, have been to assume such a role for women when their positions are somewhat unclear. I decided that this was an issue that I should address in my work and thus my research on Tjat and women in similar situations began.
Line drawing of Tjat’s son Nehri following the sons of Khety (Newberry, Beni Hasan I, pl. XXXV)
Was Tjat Khnumhotep’s real love? Was she a servant taken advantage of by him? Or was their relationship something else entirely?
History (and even current events) provides many examples of men using their power to take advantage of women lower in the hierarchy than themselves, whether within their own households, in the modern workplace, or elsewhere. Undoubtedly, this sort of abuse of power would have happened in ancient times as well. In fact, some ancient Egyptian men even say in their biographies that they never did such a thing. One can surmise that, if they felt the need to distinguish themselves by pointing out how they had not done such deeds, the practice was not uncommon among other elite men. In addition, completely consensual relationships between such parties may have occurred.
But even if we accept that such relationships existed, must we assume that every prominent woman in a male-dominated context gained that prominence through a sexual relationship? At least for the case of ancient Egypt, I would argue “no.” While women’s roles in public and administrative spheres of life were restricted compared to those of men, women could still gain wealth, influence, and power through family relationships and their own professions (for example, as nurses for children of elite households or the royal family).
Line drawing of Khnumhotep II fowling (hunting birds). His wife Khety and an administrator accompany him, while Tjat and one of his sons (depicted behind Khnumhotep) wait on the river bank. In this scene, Tjat is labeled “treasurer, keeper of the property of her lord.” (Newberry, Beni Hasan I, pl. XXXII).
Coming back to Tjat, we know that not only was she prominent in tomb scenes, but she also held the position of “treasurer, keeper of the property of her lord.” As Ward pointed out, this appears to be a title that correlated to actual responsibilities in Khnumhotep’s household (keeping valuable property safe). But, at the same time, Ward stuck to the argument that Tjat was the mistress of Khnumhotep II. Despite the past and current consensus that Tjat was the mistress of Khnumhotep II, I think we must ask whether such a relationship is really the most likely cause of Tjat’s important place in the tomb decoration or whether there are other reasons. More to come on Tjat as my research continues…
Newberry, P.E., and F. Ll. Griffith. Beni Hasan. vol. I, Archaeological Survey of Egypt 1. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1893.
Ward, William. “The Case of Mrs. Tchat and Her Sons at Beni Hasan.” Göttinger Miszellen 71 (1984): 51-59.