On the beach the light was finally subdued, and the sky settled into blue near-night. As the last rays from the eclipsed sun winked out, the people gathered in the gloom broke into cheers and applause.
"Look! Look! There it is!" cried one woman, who like hundreds of other agog spectators could not resist the self-evident. "The process is happening," her friend confirmed.
The last full solar eclipse of the millennium stirred a 70-mile-wide patch of human wonder along an arc of darkness from the English Channel to the Indian subcontinent. For a little more than three hours today, virtually all routine halted to permit goggle-eyed appreciation, joyous prayer or ill-concealed dread.
Holy and unholy at once, the moon-blackened sun was something to behold, bigger than itself, and somehow close to home. Camera flashes popped like sparks down the crowded beach along the northeastern coast of France. So did champagne corks. There were shrieks of joy, blunt confessions of marvel, shivers in the unearthly cool. Out at sea the sun shone dimly behind a far curtain, the visible edge of the eye of the shadow.
Overcast skies across the water between Britain and France had everyone in a funk as the drama mounted. But in places like this one the clouds broke in the nick of time to unveil the eclipse in its golden ring of totality shortly past noon.
Rainy and cloudy weather farther east, through Germany and Austria, made clear views of the rare heavenly event more the exception than the rule in Europe. But skies were clearer in Romania, where the eclipse had its longest run -- 2 minutes and 23 seconds -- as well as farther east in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
Television networks in Europe reported that 350 million people worldwide had witnessed the eclipse, total or partial, some traveling great distances for the right spot, others merely stopping what they were doing and looking up.
The crew of the Russian space station Mir, for their part, looked down on the eclipse shadow as it moved across the surface of earth. The two Russians and one Frenchman aboard were the first humans to view an eclipse from space.
Outside the band of totality, earthlings flocked to television screens and jammed Web sites to watch the eclipse unfold. NASA reported 1.9 million hits on its Web sites in 36 hours. Stock markets in Europe experienced lulls as the moon shadow passed over the continent. Trials were stopped in British courts at midmorning so participants could witness the last eclipse Britain will see until 2090.
Among the temporary sun-and-moon worshipers today was Pope John Paul II, who cut short his morning mass at the Vatican so as not to miss the eclipse, which he viewed through a square of tinted glass.
In the sprawling plaza in front of Jerusalem's Western Wall, the eclipse -- which reached 80 percent of totality there -- brought out Messianic Jews, astronomical amateurs and astonished tourists. "We've come here to sit and receive divine light and spread it on earth," said an Israeli named Niv, who gave his age as "in this life, 25."
In the central Iranian city of Isfahan, which NASA had listed as a particularly good vantage point, Muslims said a special prayer that celebrates God's glory and power at times of natural phenomena. Thousands of people jammed the city's central square amid chants of "God is Great." Across the Islamic world, many people took shelter in mosques or stayed in their homes.
Predictions of natural calamities or of the apocalypse proved unfounded, although a series of earthquakes and aftershocks rumbled through Cyprus and Iran a couple of hours before the eclipse, killing at least one person.
As cross-border hostilities continued between India and Pakistan, Krishnavati Pande, 70, sat under a tree outside a Hindu temple in New Delhi, chanting sacred prayers from a ceremony honoring the Hindu sun god, Surya. But all she could think of was her pregnant daughter-in-law back home.
"During the period of the solar eclipse, she should not cut any vegetables, she should not eat anything, or stop out of the house, or fold her hands or legs," Pande said. "Bad things can happen to you if you don't follow the rules."
Reporters at zoos and wildlife preserves in the path of the lunar shadow reported that animals became disconcerted, seeking shelter for a night that ended only minutes later. At a zoo in Bucharest, Romania, ponies misled by the darkness tried to mate, only to be interrupted by sunlight. And Romania's state news agency said tourists in Black Sea resorts used their hands to catch thousands of disoriented fish swimming in shallow waters.
The total eclipse began over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia, when the moon slid precisely between the sun and the Earth at 5:31 a.m. EDT, creating a shadow that dashed at 1,767 mph across the globe before dissipating in the Bay of Bengal a little more than three hours later.
In the southwestern corner of England, where the shadow made its first landfall at 11:11 a.m. local time (6:11 a.m. EDT), hundreds of thousands of people gathered on high chalk cliffs and rolling green hillsides, although heavy cloud cover allowed only brief glimpses of the blackened sun.
Druids and other pagans held worship services and festivals that attracted some Americans, including author Ken Kesey. During the two minutes of totality, Kesey was "knighted" at an ancient stone altar by a Druid who calls himself "King Arthur Pendragon."
Here in northern France, hundreds of thousands of spectators hugged the shoreline. There were last minute scrambles for the indispensable disposable glasses; one father begged a kitchen knife from a picnicker to cut too few pairs of glasses into the right number.
Businessman David Houzelot and his friends from Paris, running late, pulled off the highway at noon and waded into a field crowded with watchers. "At 12:10, people no longer moved. Everybody stood still outside their cars. Even animals, cows, dogs wouldn't make any noise," he said. "Suddenly, we were cold; the night fell, and we got to see solar explosions behind the moon. I was all excited, I was jumping around, there was an amazing vibration in the air, like a communion with nature."
Not far away, in Epernay, the Kelly family of Alexandria, Va., found an open space to eyeball the event or try out their homemade eclipse pinhole boxes. "The best part was when it finally went to night -- or almost night, like four o'clock," said Elizabeth Kelly, who is almost 9, in a telephone interview. Her brother Samuel, 10, corrected her in the background. She resumed: "It was about 6 or 7 at night."
Almost right away, it was morning again. Just the barest sliver of emerging sun seemed to bathe the air with light and heat. "That's it. It is finished," said the obvious-minded woman on the beach.
Correspondents Lee Hockstader in Jerusalem and T. R. Reid in Studland, England, and special correspondents Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and Daphne Benoit in Paris contributed to this report.