From Brazil To Mongolia, Sun Dances With Moon

By Joanne Omang
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 30, 2006

KONYA, Turkey, March 29 -- As the sun went dark here Wednesday, a dervish mystic whirled in a garden, one hand pointing to the earth, the other to the sky. "The solar system turns like the dervish, a cosmic dance," said Bekir Sahin, director of rare books and manuscripts in this provincial center of Islamic study. "Konya today is the center of the universe."

A total eclipse of the sun drew thousands of astronomers, eclipse groupies and tourists to this town for a glimpse of the cosmic dance that began at sunrise in Brazil and ended at sunset in northern Mongolia. A partial eclipse, in which the moon only partly obscured the sun, was visible over all of Europe and the Middle East and most of Africa and Asia.

The total eclipse followed a much narrower path: It raced northeast across the Atlantic at more than 1,000 miles per hour, crossing the African coast into Ghana at 9:10 a.m. local time. There, schoolchildren cheered the onset of daytime darkness, and streetlights turned on automatically in response to it, the Associated Press reported.

Viewers in Libya saw it at its peak: 4 minutes 7 seconds of totality over a swath of land 118 miles wide, according to NASA. When it reached the Greek island of Kasteloriso, people wearing protective filters marveled at the spectacle overhead.

By the time the eclipse got to Konya, at 1:57 p.m. local time, the changing angle of the shadow gave 3 minutes 48 seconds of totality in a band 112 miles wide.

For many people, the journey here was spiritual. This ancient center of scholarship and the Sufi branch of Islam welcomed more than 3,000 foreign visitors to a day of contemplation mixed with science and a picnic holiday.

"We have busloads of people from Egypt, from Germany, from Japan," said Mevlut Bektas, director of tourism and culture. Every hotel room in the city was taken, he said.

The Turkish government was expecting more than the 3.5 million visitors who came to the country for another total eclipse in 1999, and special festivals and tours were set up nationwide.

At the tomb of the 13th-century philosopher and mystic Celaleddin Rumi, who is known as Mevlana, villagers peered at the vanishing sun through special glasses distributed free by the local government. A chattering crowd in the garden outside the tomb fell quiet as the warm, clear day slowly turned wintry in thinning sunlight. They gasped as one at the moment of totality: Twilight surged around the horizon, Venus appeared in a midnight sky, and a ring of fire circled the black hole where the sun had been.

"Do you think there will be an earthquake?" asked Enver Uslu, who had come with his wife, Ayse, from Seydisehir, west of Konya, to visit a physician. A total solar eclipse in Turkey in 1999 was followed seven days later by a quake that killed more than 20,000 people. Uslu said relatives in Tokat, on Wednesday's eclipse center line and also on a major fault, had moved from their home into a tent, just in case.

A woman nearby who declined to give her name scoffed at the question. "That is not scientific," she said. "Please don't believe that all people here think metaphysical things."

Muslim tradition holds that the prophet Muhammad's 18-month-old son Ibrahim died in Medina, Saudi Arabia, on the day a solar eclipse occurred there, Jan. 27, 632. When people said the eclipse had happened because of the death and the sadness of the prophet, he corrected them, according to the 8th-century Arab scholar Al-Mughira bin Shuba, saying: "The sun and the moon are two signs among the signs of Allah. They do not eclipse because of someone's death or life. So when you see them, invoke Allah and pray until the eclipse ends."

The tradition recommends a special prayer in congregation as a reminder that Allah has power over all things in heaven and on earth.

Sahin, the manuscript scholar, directed visitors to the nearby museum's display of astronomical equipment and documents dating from the Seljuk empire of the 11th to 13th centuries. "We believe the eclipse has an effect on the human heart, whether we feel it or not," he said.

Nurhan Cankaya of Nevsehir, who was guiding a Spanish couple on a private tour, said he hoped the effect would be positive. "I am a little bit dervish myself," he said. "Mevlana says all is change, and the eclipse I believe will bring a change toward peace."

Karen Scholnick, 62, a former elementary school principal from Philadelphia, was on her third visit to Turkey. "To be able to see an eclipse in the company of a people and a culture I love was an opportunity not to be missed," she said. She was traveling with Anita Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. "It reminded me how small and insignificant we all are," she said.

Colleen Clark, 63, of Cambridge, Mass., a public health scholar and researcher who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey from 1964 to 1966, also returned for the 1999 eclipse. She saw it from the town of Sivas. Konya, she said, was a better viewing site because of its importance to Islam. "It just didn't last long enough," she said of this one.

From Turkey, the total eclipse moved across the Black Sea, then Georgia and southern Russia. In Baghdad, outside the path of totality, residents were briefly diverted from the continuing trauma of war as they looked aloft to see a partial obscuring of the sun, a crescent. In Bangladesh, the moon took a mere bite off the edge of the solar disk. Finally, at dusk over Asia, the sun and the moon parted ways.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company