- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

SIDE, Turkey — Thousands of skygazers gathered in an ancient temple of Apollo and let out cheers yesterday as a total solar eclipse turned day into twilight, casting an eerie blue glow across the sky and the Mediterranean Sea.

NASA astronomers handed out protective glasses to hundreds of Turkish children before the eclipse cut a dark swath across the sky — a band that stretched from Brazil, across West Africa, Turkey and Central Asia, and then disappeared at sunset in Mongolia.

The last total solar eclipse was in November 2003, but that was best viewed from sparsely populated Antarctica. The eclipse yesterday blocked the sun in highly populated areas.

Total eclipses require the tilted orbits of the sun, moon and Earth to line up exactly so that the moon obscures the sun completely. The next total eclipse will occur in 2008.

In Ghana, automatic streetlights switched on as the light faded, and authorities sounded emergency whistles in celebration. Schoolchildren and others across the capital, Accra, burst into applause.

Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq were summoned to mosques during the eclipse for a special prayer reserved for times of fear and natural disasters.

In the Turkish resort of Side, a crowd of about 10,000 began cheering and whistling as the moon took its first bite out of the sun. When the moon masked the sun and Venus suddenly appeared in the blue glow of the darkened sky, another loud cheer erupted.

“It’s one of those experiences that makes you feel like you’re part of the larger universe,” said NASA astronomer Janet Luhmann, who witnessed the eclipse from the ruins of an ancient Roman theater just a few hundred feet from the temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun.

As the moon covered the sun, the temperature dropped quickly and some skygazers put on sweaters. The sun blackened and a fiery rim surrounded it; the sky turned an eerie dark blue while a bright red sunset could be seen on the horizon.

There was a festive atmosphere in Side, with people gathered on the fallen stones and collapsed columns of the Apollo temple or on rocks at a beach about 40 feet away.

A string quintet played classical music at the foot of the temple’s five standing pillars, and a Turkish brewery distributed free beer. Vendors hawked eclipse T-shirts and, at one point, the stargazers began waving to a nearby cruise ship.

Children sat on the ruined stone steps of the second-century Roman theater and watched as astronomers from NASA and the San Francisco-based Exploratorium science museum, using large telescopes and cameras, broadcast the phenomenon live on the Internet.

Many in Ghana, a deeply religious country of Christians and Muslims, said the eclipse bolstered their faith.

“I’ve never experienced this, and we all need to pray to God and worship him. I believe it’s a wonderful work of God,” said Solomon Pomenya, a 52-year-old doctor. “This tells me that God is a true engineer.”

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