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Last solar eclipse of the century in Iran. Photo by Caren Firouz, Reuters

Moon kissed
Searching for the total eclipse

By Mansi Saboori
October 20, 1999
The Iranian

For those of you who could not view the last total solar eclipse of the millennium on August 11, you probably missed not only a great spectacular astronomical event but also a real life experience.

I was one of the lucky few. I don't know if I will be able to see another one in Iran during my lifetime, for the next total eclipse will happen 35 years from now, on March of 2034. I was also lucky to be in a country where the probability of seeing the eclipse was over 90%. I filmed this historical event with a group of Iranian filmmakers and friends. At that time in Tehran, people and the press were mostly engaged in the student demonstrations, unrest, and political ramifications of the events followed by the crackdown. However, I soon found out that so many others who were much too busy with their everyday life struggles, including dealing with the high prices of food, goods, and other necessities, and could not pay much attention to the political crisis.

I started to catch up with cultural events and meetings at a breathtaking rate. I visited many women writers and artists and met new ones everyday. I found a group of friends who decided to film the eclipse. We attended various eclipse events, such as house meetings, exhibitions, workshops, seminars and cultural performances that were organized by scientists, artists, and educators around Tehran.

The cities and towns on the path of the eclipse used the occasion for a massive campaign to attract tourism to their area. It seemed like everyone wanted to turn this cosmic phenomena into a national event.

On July 27, in Peka bookstore, located on Enghelab Street near the University of Tehran, a group of scientists including Dr. Mansoori, editor of the astronomical magazine Nojoom, and Mr. Barzegar, general manager of Peka, and amateur photographers presented a seminar/workshop on how and where to watch and enjoy these short-time phenomena and carry out many scientific projects that make this pleasure last for a long time. We learned a lot about the towns on the path of the eclipse and their observatory sites as well as about those towns' people's beliefs and myths.

The workshop was well attended and crowded with women and youngsters who were eager to learn. Organizers encouraged people to go to more exotic sites in remote villages and towns rather than going to major cities such as Isfahan. Places like Kurdistan were well prepared to entertain and accommodate many foreign and local tourists. Isfahan attracted most of the international visitors when NASA announced that among all the places in the world along the eclipse path, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Bengal, this ancient city would have the highest probability of having a clear view of the eclipse. The University of Technology in Isfahan was chosen as one of the international sites for 100 foreign scientists and astronomers to study and observe the eclipse.

Finally, after weeks of anticipation and preparation, the lunar shadow came to Iran and passed over the western borders in the province of Kurdistan and over the beautiful lake of Zarivar. It then traveled through the province of Kermanshahan engulfing surviving historical monuments such as the 2500-year-old inscriptions of Bistun and Kangavar's temple of Anahita, with total darkness. It then passed through the province of Luristan, left the Zagros Mountains and moved onto the desert plateau above the Zayandeh-rood Lake entering Isfahan. The moon shadow continued to pass over the plateau of Yazd and over the remnants of the 2000-year fortress of Bam. It finally passed through the province of Sistan-Baluchistan, leaving Iran and entering Pakistan.

Tehran had a partial view the eclipse (90%). In order to see the path of totality my friends and I traveled from Tehran to the central region of Iran, where we followed the Moon's umbra shadow and observed and filmed the total Eclipse in three different locations: Isfahan, Chadegan and Nahavand. High temperatures and low humidity in these places provided pleasant conditions for observing. Skies were clear for the most part, except for the occasional patches of scattered clouds.

Along our path, we also traveled around Arak, Golpayegan, Khomein, Khonsar, the village of Daumaneh, and Daran. From these sites visitors were able to enjoy many sightseeing's and watch the total eclipse for one minute to one minute and 40 seconds. . There were signs all along the path, advising people to take proper precautions to avoid observing the sun with the naked eye. It was safe to view only at the moment of total eclipse. After having Golpayaegan's famous chelo-kabab for lunch, we headed toward Khonsar and explored its site in a beautiful mountainous local park. We bought several packages of gaz (Khonsar's gaz is the best) and after passing the Golestan mountain, famous for its beautiful tulips and spring water, we arrived in Daumaneh, an old village where houses are built over the skirt of a beautiful mountain range.

Our group settled in Chadegan, a small town in the province of Isfahan. It was a beautiful clear day on 11 of August and there were hundreds of tourists from Tehran and other cities as well as a few foreign visitors. There was also a site designated for a group of foreign and Iranian scientists who observed the eclipse in Chadegan and conducted and recorded scientific experiments. Our site was nearby Zayandeh-rood Lake and dam that lies along the magnificent hills and mountain range. A portion of our group filmed the event in Isfahan's Naghsheh Jahan Square. The majority of foreign tourists chose this city not only for the highest probability of seeing the eclipse but because it has the reputation for splendid architectural monuments and historical sites that rival those of Greece, China, and Egypt. It also provides an atmosphere that manages to be both politically charged and socially relaxed. Although the U.S. and Iran still lack normal diplomatic relations, there were a number of Americans and a few other foreign visitors here who enjoyed the eclipse.

Nahavand was another site where a portion of our groups observed and filmed the total eclipse. Here, visitors, several foreign diplomats, and large number of photographers and press gathered in a football stadium (Alimoradian) located in one of the town's highest zone to watch and record the event. Visitors from nearby the ancient city Hamadan came to Nahavand to observe (Hamadan had a partial eclipse of 97%). A number of foreign scholars stayed over in Hamadan to visit the ancient archeological finds going back to thousands of year ago.

Along the road, as we passed by towns, we asked people about their beliefs and myths regarding the solar eclipse. For thousands of years people have looked up to the sun, the moon and the stars, and wondered about the beauty of the star-filled night sky and the drama of the eclipse. They have left many stories and myths for posterity. In ancient Iran, the sun had a very special place in the literature and art. Eclipses have coincided with such historic events as the war between the Medes and Lydians and the uprising in the cities of Assyria. On our way to Nahavand, nearby the town of Malayer, there is a hill called Nooshijan, and there stands the ruins of Anahita's Temple. We were told that 3,000 years ago, during a solar eclipse, women from the Medes, who were praying for five years in the temple, believed that the power of the eclipse stopped the war and caused their men and sons to return home.

Although people now know why eclipses occur, it is important to know what our ancestors beliefs regarding eclipses and their attempts to rescue the sun from extinction. It is also interesting to note the similarities between the beliefs of different people in various parts of Iran. These myths show that people somehow knew that the sun was their primary source of life.

Throughout our exploration, we enjoyed the excitement of watching the eclipse, visiting sightseeing's and historical monuments, local food, cold beverages made out of local herbal extract, and last but not least the people's hospitality. However, my heart aches when I remember the extreme economic hardship people have to tolerate in these areas and how little they can do for themselves as well as for so many restoration projects underway to preserve and maintain their ancient and historical sites. In addition, the country's ongoing political uncertainty leaves very little hope for any change in the near future.

Unfortunately Iran missed the opportunity to improve its tourism status during this event and lost millions of dollars. Few Westerners dared to venture into this region despite Iran's clear views of the eclipse. Thousands of tourists from different countries who initially were interested in visiting Iran to observe the eclipse and historical sites canceled their trips because of the climate of political instability and turmoil.

At the end, I like to thank all my Iranian friends who helped me in this journey; and I offer my film to all my American and Iranian friends here who missed this historical event.

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Eclipse in Iran
An American scientific delegation is in Iran

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