Thursday, November 13, 2014
So - have you been following the comet-landing? Who could have thought, in these cynical days, that the adventures of a plucky little techno-pioneer could be so gripping?
On top of the sheer wonder of it - the first pictures ever, today, from the surface of a comet (even if the lander, after two graceful bounces, is now a tad askew, on its side - there is the graceful poetry of the craft's name, and that of the space probe that got it there. As an Egyptophile, I'm hooked.
The mothership, as it were, you see, is Rosetta, after the eponymous stone, the one that proved a key in deciphering the ancient hieroglyphic script, while the movingly vulnerably little surface vehicle is Philae, after an obelisk that also played a role in unraveling the mysterious writing. Together, they're undertaking a whole new kind of decipherment.
The Philae Obelisk is named for the temple from which it was plucked (to a country house park in Dorset, of all places), and the temple is, to me, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Saved by UNESCO in the '60s when it was moved above the floodline, the monuments that together make up Philae are both familiar, reminiscent of the larger temples upriver at Luxor, and unique, from very late in the arc of pharaonic history and so full of little eccentricities of scale and emphasis. Many believe that Philae may have been the last place that the altars of Isis and her counterparts were tended, the last to be abandoned as a strange new faith born across the Red Sea in Palestine spread inexorably up the river that had for millennia been devoted the pantheon of Memphis, Thebes, and Alexandria.
Unlike many of Egypt's great places, Philae stands alone. You approach on a small boat, rather as ancient pilgrims might have, and when you can escape your tour group, you can wander off to a quiet corner and be as alone as you can anywhere in teeming Egypt - not quite as alone, of course, as on the surface of a comet...