Thousands gather to view annular eclipse

From northern Portugal to the heart of Africa crowds gathered Monday on rooftops, hilltops and in city squares for a rare chance to see a spectacular

October 8, 2005 14:30


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From northern Portugal to the heart of Africa crowds gathered Monday on rooftops, hilltops and in city squares for a rare chance to see a spectacular kind of solar eclipse. In Nairobi, people prayed when the moon masked the sun like a black plate, leaving a bright rim, and in Madrid, people cheered at Spain's first sight of an annular eclipse in more than two centuries. "It may be a sign of the end of the world or some other great disaster. This is what we believe," said 82-year-old Tigray tribesman Tebared Tsegahun in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "I don't know what you members of the new generation say about it," he said, but "We will keep praying to survive the danger that will come after it." Most of Ethiopia's 70 million people were not aware the spectacle was coming. An FM radio station announced it a couple of hours before the event - not long enough for the news to spread. The eclipse traveled along a narrow band across almost half the planet. After a three-and-a-half-hour stretch traversing northern Portugal and Spain, it moved south across mostly deserted parts of Africa, encompassing Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Outside that band, partial eclipses were visible through protective eyewear over most of Europe, the Middle East, India and a large chunk of Africa. The eclipse started over the North Atlantic at 0841GMT. At 0856GMT, it passed over Madrid for 4 minutes, 11 seconds. At 1031GMT, central Sudan had the event's longest eclipse, lasting 4 minutes, 31 seconds. Next was the coast of southern Somalia at 1110GMT, and the eclipse concluded at sunset over the Indian Ocean at 1220GMT. For the Iberian Peninsula, it was the first chance to see an annular eclipse in 241 years. It won't see another one until 2028. "It was a beautiful sight. I won't see one again," said 68-year-old Isabel Balset. "I got very emotional and the tears just flowed." In Madrid, the best place in Europe to see it, families, teenagers with teachers and groups of enthusiasts met at the city's planetarium beneath a cloudless sky and donned protective eyeglasses to watch the eclipse directly or via a giant television screen. Office workers and school children went to the rooftops as the normally blinding light of the Spanish capital dimmed and the air chilled. People shared the special glasses, and whooped and applauded with excitement. In the tiny central African nation of Burundi, residents who could not afford to buy protective glasses walked out of their homes and offices in the capital, Bujumbura, poured water into buckets and watched the reflection of the eclipse in the water to avoid harming their eyes. "It looks like sunset, but it is only midday," said Thadee Ndaruvukanye. "This is a strong sign from God to show us that he is the most powerful." Traditionally, Burundians believe that an eclipse marks a time when the Earth and heaven are linked - and is considered an omen for great misfortune, including poor harvests, the death of precious cattle, an epidemic or conflict. At the Central Park in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, residents who gathered during the lunch break watched the eclipse as an evangelical preacher prayed loudly. As temperature and light faded unexpectedly at noon, birds chirped excitedly as they do at sunset. "I was longing to see it. I want to see it because I have never seen it before. In the year 2000, I saw the lunar eclipse, but I have never seen a solar eclipse," said office messenger Chrispin Odhiambo. In India, thousands witnessed a partial annular eclipse, but they missed the event in its full glory - the "ring of fire" observed in some parts of the world. In New Delhi, the eclipse was only 10 per cent. Eclipses of one sort or another occur twice a year. The last annular eclipse happened in April and was best seen in Panama. They are a rare sight because they can only be viewed by people in a narrow band. Although of far less importance to astronomers than a total eclipse, the event attracted many experts to Spain. "It was incredible. It became darker and darker and you could definitely feel the effect, the temperature, the wind and the light," said US astronomy professor Timothy Young from North Dakota. "The moon went right into the center like the bull's eye. I wished it had lasted for hours instead of just four minutes."

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