Several days ago I struck out on an adventure to a Mediterranean town called Sallum to see an amazing example of the miraculous rhythm of nature. Teri and I went to a local bus station at 11:30PM and took an overnight bus to the small town, which sits a mere 7 kilometers from the border with Libya. When we arrived at the checkpoint to enter the town at 9:30AM, a town official boarded the bus and delivered some unwelcome news. We would have to pay 100 Egyptian Pounds to cross the city limits and he knew we would pay up on this of all days. This particular day happened to be March 29th, 2006, the day the moon would completely blot out the sun.
While the officials just knew they would get money out of us, they were terribly uninformed. After telling the town officials that we didn’t even need to enter the town to see the eclipse (we were already well within the shadow zone) and after a few minutes of irate screaming by the locals, the officials caved and let us through for free.
Teri and I set up camp on a rocky, trash-covered beach, and were joined by an Irishman, and two German women… and a few hundred local Egyptian men. No Egyptian women, just men.
For the next few hours I monitored the slow progression of the moon across the face of the sun with I device I had assembled in Cairo. It’s dangerous to look at an eclipse while the sun is still visible, so I had devised a way to look at the sun indirectly. I also fended the Egyptian men off of Teri and our two German friends, though Teri did quite a bit of fending of her own. The local men said some very distasteful things and were quite surprised when I spouted some Arabic back at them.
Sallum, despite the rude behavior of the locals, was a fantastic place to view an eclipse. It was very flat, being on the Mediterranean coast, which offered an incredible view of the entire sky. Also, the air was devoid of any moisture, so there were absolutely no clouds.
After quite a bit of waiting, the moment was nearly upon us. With only an eighth of the sun still showing, some very interesting things began to happen. The horizon reddened as if it were dusk though it was only 12:30 in the afternoon, the light blue sky darkened, and Venus shone brightly by itself near the horizon. The light shining on our faces paled and the temperature noticeably dropped. The hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. Even my body could tell something is not right, that something was amiss.
Nearby an Egyptian had set up a telescope and was using it to project the focused light of the sun onto a white piece of paper. The projection perfectly depicted the remaining slender crescent of the sun. The image reminded me of so many decorative crescent moons I have seen on top of the mosques here in Egypt, except this was a crescent SUN.
Near the horizon I saw yet another strange phenomena that I expected because I had read about it on the internet, but was totally unprepared for how unnerving it looked. Imagine the negative of a sunbeam. Let’s call it a shadowbeam. The shadowbeam began as a vertical wisp on the southwestern horizon but quickly grew to encompass the entire sky, swallowing any remaining blue. It was the shaft of no-light rushing across north Africa in our direction. An imam at a nearby mosque was praying over a loudspeaker as I looked back at the nearby projection of the sun. I looked just in time to see the remaining fingernail of the sun dissolve and the pale sunlight shining on the ground all around us disappeared completely. We had entered totality. The moon had completely covered the sun.
Once the sun is completely covered, it is safe to look at an eclipse, even with your naked eyes. Immediately all of our eyes snapped to the place where the sun had just been to see a perfect circular hole surrounded by a misty white glow. I wasn’t prepared for how utterly black the moon would be. I have never seen anything so black. It was unnaturally black. All at the same time, the Muslims standing around us erupted in cheers, saying, “Allah akbar!” [God is great!]
For the next four minutes we snapped pictures and stood there absolutely stunned. Seeing an eclipse is truly amazing. It forced me to reflect upon the fact that I am a person, a speck on a planet that has its own rhythms and cycles, which includes the revolution of the moon. Once a month the moon makes its journey around the Earth in a slightly tilted orbit. From our perspective on Earth it usually passes undetected above or below the sun. But every now and then, it passes directly in front of the Sun, casting a shadow on the surface of the Earth. These motions are so regular, so cyclical that they can be measured and predicted very accurately. NASA even publishes maps showing the exact path of the shadow of the moon years before an eclipse actually occurs.
I have always had a great interest in science and I am regularly amazed at what the human mind has discovered and figured out through the centuries. I also believe in a higher being that causes all of this order, and even the chaos we can’t figure out. I always struggle between my “science mind” and my “religious mind.” I even wonder sometimes if they are really that different. When it comes down to it, both minds simply seek to understand, just in different ways. Neither way is completely right, or completely wrong. I guess I try to use both. Or maybe I’ve read to many Dan Brown books.