November 15, 2014, by Esther Eidinow

Journeying to the Outer Limits

Doug Lee finds connections between the Rosetta space mission and an ancient pilgrimage.

The European Space Agency’s successful mission to land a probe from the Rosetta spacecraft onto a comet in outer space has been headline news, and understandably so. The technical achievement involved in guiding a lander the size of a washing-machine onto an object travelling at 40,000 mph and doing so at a distance of 300 million miles from Earth is undeniable.

However, when reading news reports about the mission, I was also struck by another detail – the name of the probe, Philae, which has intriguing resonances in the context of the ancient world. Upon further investigation, it emerged that the Agency had chosen this name for the probe because, along with the famous Rosetta Stone, an obelisk from the site of Philae in Egypt had played a part in the deciphering of hieroglyphics, so unlocking the secrets of texts and inscriptions from Pharaonic Egypt. The rationale for the choice of name for the probe, then, was the hope that it would help to decipher the secrets of comets and the light they could shed on the evolution of the universe.

It occurred to me, though, that the choice of name was also apt for another reason. For Philae is located on the upper reaches of the Nile in the deep south of Egypt, at the outer territorial limits of successive regimes which controlled the region in antiquity, from the Pharaohs, to the Ptolemies, to the Romans.

Moreover, Philae was the location of a famous temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, and became a destination for pilgrims in antiquity. Although Isis was by origin an Egyptian goddess, she became popular throughout the Graeco-Roman world as a female deity concerned especially for the needs of women. Journeying up the Nile for many days, pilgrims would eventually reach the island on which was situated Isis’ magnificent temple – still standing, although it had to be relocated in the course of work on the Aswan Dam in 1980 – where they made votive offerings seeking Isis’ blessing and protection, many of which have survived.

By the standards of the Rosetta space mission, the distances these pilgrims journeyed and the time it took to reach their destination were trifling. However, in the context of the ancient world, the journey to Philae, requiring, as it would have, significant investment of personal resources and the courage to face the unknown, must have been every bit as challenging at the individual level for those who chose to make that pilgrimage to this fabled location on the outer edge of the civilised world.


Image: Isis depicted with outstretched wings (wall painting, c. 1360 BCE)

“Ägyptischer Maler um 1360 v. Chr. 001” by Ägyptischer Maler um 1360 v. Chr. – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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