Solar Eclipse August 11, 1999
Richard S. Humphries
The really fun part of a trip begins when the planning is lost in the shuffle of the trip itself. At some point, for better or worse, the trip takes you. For more than a day, our international group of solar eclipse chasers were almost on a magic carpet. We headed from Ankara toward Tokat, which was near the middle of the path of the moon's shadow. About five PM, a few miles short of the town, we stopped at a very attractive arbor picnic area. A group of local people welcomed us to a beautiful outdoor dinner for the thirty of us and about the same number of them. The spread was both attractive and delicious. For me the magic began when Meli (of Melitours, our tour operator) translated from our Turkish hosts that one of the ladies had gotten china from her hope chest for our dinner. The honor was far beyond either expectation or the informality of our attire. Later, these people put us up, couple by couple, in their homes for the night. As one member of our group said, "we could communicate with everything but language."
After dinner we went to town where several thousand locals had gathered for entertainment in the town square right in front of the city hall and the statue of Attaturk. There were about seventy-five chairs between the standing crowd and the raised stage. We were escorted to the chairs! There was music and dancing with some English translation for our benefit. And then there was a pause during the call to prayer from the minaret of the nearby mosque. Finally, there was a nice show of fireworks and we were off with our host families for the night. Our hosts gave us their bedroom and slept in the living room. They were a professional couple with a seven year old present and a baby taken elsewhere during our stay. The third floor flat was pleasant with a nice view of a park. The breakfast was sumptuous with quiche, home made jams, fresh baked bread and fresh made cake. The family took us to town to meet with our group. Without common language it was impossible to express adequately our appreciation. We did our best, but parted with a sense of obligation unmet.
As we gathered with Meltem, our constant and competent guide in
Turkey, to take a walking tour of the town, a group of children from the
previous night's entertainment stopped by for pictures. They were full of
energy and promise for themselves and their country. There is much that needs
to be done in Turkey, as in the rest of the world, if the promise of youth is
to be fulfilled. Everywhere, the children challenge us as adults to better
their future. Again there was a feeling of obligation unmet.
As we took the walking tour, Dave and Noel (two of our leaders) and Meli searched for access to one of the neighboring hilltops for viewing the eclipse. They found a great spot but not how to get there. As they drove around the hill they came to a lone man standing by the relatively remote country road. They asked him how to get to the top. He pointed to a barn and said to turn right there. Not seeing a road, they asked him if he was sure. He said, "These are my roads!" It turns out he indeed had some official capacity with regard to the roads and the grassy area by the barn was a sort of semi-road access to the top. Who knows why he was there all alone at the exact time we needed him? We needed access in the next few hours. Unfortunately, our bus could never get us up that road. In short order, with her cell phone, Meli had arranged for a couple of vans to get us there. Meli is a very resourceful lady.
In the early afternoon we made it to the top of our hill to behold a 360-degree vista including a nice view of Tokat below. The spot was grassy and slightly breezy that warm afternoon. It was perfect in every way. As the sun began to be eclipsed by the moon, we watched it's progress through dark glasses and shared a nice picnic lunch. Very gradually it became less bright in that Turkish sun and eventually even started to darken. The temperature dropped several degrees and the shadows became sharper. A few minutes before totality, one of the fellows held out a single hair from his head and about six feet below on the ground was a piece of paper showing the shadow of that single hair! The two minutes and a few seconds of totality are now very close at hand.
Everyone has his binoculars or telescope and spot on the ground upon which to lie for comfortable viewing. The plans for how to spend this brief time have been carefully planned. A most interesting and ambitious plan is set by Noel. He will take a picture of totality just after it begins and another just before it ends. The combination of these two will produce a stereoscopic view of the total solar eclipse of the sun potentially superior in imaging to any single exposure. I am excited by the possibilities and he needs to expend only the briefest attention to the task during totality. Most of us had agreed with Noel long before this time that totality should be spent actually seeing the eclipse, rather than fooling around with cameras to get a lot of pictures, none of which could hope to capture all we can see. The photographic reminder could be bought later from those who took pictures, computer processed the images to superb refinement and who personally missed much of the live esthetic experience in order to get those images.
As we watch the final seconds toward totality there appears the last direct rays of sunlight in the form of little bright beads of light which is the surface of the sun seen through openings between the mountains on the moon. These are called "Bailey's beads." Everyone whoops and hollers! These dissolve into a local bright glow coupled with a soft white glow of the corona beginning to appear around the moon to form a spectacular "diamond ring" image in the sky. More whoops and hollers! Then totality. The daytime stars become visible and the glory of the corona is now fully exposed extending away from the sun easily estimated at more than one and a half solar diameters. And the corona is a fabric of structures with radial tendrils. This is the sight that captures the attention of all who have seen it. The beauty can be fully described with neither words nor pictures.
Fortunately, our astronomers, both professional and amateur, have prepared us to maximize our experience. We are reminded before totality to look to the northwest to see the darkening of the landscape as the shadow approaches. It is interesting to see dark over there and then soon to find the darkness has also reached us. Also, after the onset of totality we are reminded to look all around at the horizon. We see a kind of 360-degree sunset! It is really quite beautiful and quite strange to see orange-red light all around from our hilltop perch. We are seeing past the circular shadow of the sun in which we are standing. So quickly those two minutes passed. The process reversed with the diamond ring and Bailey's beads and then partial visibility of the sun and so on back to normal.
Most of us have seen a solar eclipse before. That is why we have come so far to see another. We came to experience again the esthetic arrest, which is burned in our memory as something very, very special. All were moved in some strong way. Some who had not seen a total solar eclipse before were even moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the sight. Even Noel, one of our most experienced observers, was so captivated by the sight that he wouldn't take himself from viewing to get the two pictures he had diligently planned for the stereoscopic image.
After the eclipse we got in our familiar bus for a several hour ride to our hotel stay. On the way we saw a brilliant red sunset that brought a glorious close to a wonderful day. The hotel was a nice place with a nice buffet dinner. That evening happened to be a Perseid meteor shower night. We had asked Meli to arrange a dark place where we could view the meteors. And did she ever!
We took the bus a few miles from our hotel to a dark area where there was an open air Hittite temple to the heavens! We wandered with flashlights through the tall rocks and low hills to find heroic size bas relief carvings in the rock walls. They are four thousand years old. The relief must have been about six inches. The warriors were maybe eight feet tall and the stone was dark. It was very impressive and so appropriate to our activities of the day. The park attendant had not had visitors at night before, but Meli had arranged it for us.
After viewing some of the figures for a while, the park attendant held the flashlight so the figures would be illuminated obliquely. Wow! Those figures fairly came alive! They almost jumped out of the rock. We all gave an instant whoop when he did that. All of a sudden we were back in time to Hittite days. It was no longer a dead museum of some remote past. What a gift Meli and the park attendant came up with that evening.
So the thirty magic hours is coming to a close. We left the Hittite temple area and retired to the parking lot where Meli had brought three oriental rugs from her home for us to lie on as we watched the meteor showers and drank wine. We really did end up on a "magic carpet."
We demonstrated, as have all before us, the universal response of excitement at the experience of a total solar eclipse. This observation begs the questions of why we respond so, and why we cross oceans and mountains to experience again what cannot be fully communicated by word or picture. Why is it we are so distracted by the sight, that we fail to do what was planned and practiced for those few moments? The "why" is, of course, subjective and individual. However, I think it has something profoundly to do with our humanity, our intuitive appreciation of order in the universe beyond understanding and yet, somehow within our grasp. The revelation of the corona is so magnificent and beautiful that it becomes a metaphor for revelation of the Great Mystery in the universe and our selves.