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Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 1999 Aug 11

by Guy Ottwell (Shenyurt, Turkey)

I wasn't going to write a description of this eclipse, but friends naturally ask, so here is something on the eclipse alone.It was my eleventh (that is, eleventh time in the path of a central solar eclipse, including two annulars and one cloud-out).For the first time I'm making no memoir of the journey as a whole - because I feel myself to be through into a new, post-autobiographical, live-happily-ever-after phase of life!

Also, this was my second journey as part of a tour group, which I had helped organize, and it will be my last.There's nothing wrong with organized tourism for efficiency, convenience, and pleasant companions, but I felt myself to be in a bubble - a glossy bubble, peering out at Turks who were peering in.We traveled in two air-conditioned coaches and stayed in hotels rich enough to provide buffet meals and Western bathrooms.It was a high-pressure experience that included Istanbul, Troy, Bergama, Ephesus, Kushadasi, Pamukkale (ruined by the hotels that have stolen its water), Chatalhöyük, Konya and its dervishes, the carved landscape and underground dwellings of Cappadocia, carpetries and potteries, the great Hittite sites, a post-eclipse barbecue (among five thousand people) on an archaeological site called either Kökenes or Kerkenes, Ankara and its great museum, Istanbul again and its mazy bazaars, a cruise along the Bosporus, a lot of lecturing by our able guides Inci and Ihsan and by me about Greek stories and Turkish words and by Mike Reymers about the Mother Goddess, a conflict over my wish to communicate at least something on Turkish human rights, a meeting with brave Turkish Amnesty International people, a meeting with my friends from Izmit (our ex-prisoner-of-conscience and his family, with whom I stayed on my previous visit), a night of sleepless inspiration on a roof in sight of the Sultan Ahmet mosque, a weary journey home, the news of the massive earthquake that took place just after we left and was worst in Izmit, and a day of telephoning to find that my friends there were alive.

Well then, August 11, 1999, very early, we drove out from our hotel in the pine-afforestation park overlooking Yozgat, ninety miles through mountain-threading valleys to another supposedly undistinguished east-central Turkish town, Turhal, in a twist of the valley of the Yeshil Irmak ("green river"), then about ten miles east along that valley to a village, Shenyurt ("cheerful home").We were to go to the top of the mountain north of the village.This site had been chosen for us in advance by Mike Reymers and his Turkish factotum Mustafa; like Turhal, it was about exactly on the center line.There had been debate, about an invitation from the Kerkenes archaeologists to join them at a spot farther east (the Chamlibel pass, which would have been higher, and with shorter totality; and about the possibility of stopping short of Turhal, near the path edge, especially if there had been clouds ahead.We had a parliament and these were rejected.Those with sophisticated equipment (such as Keith Allred and Steve Swayze) had an investment in the pre-chosen site because they had based their observing programs on its exact coordinates and eclipse-times.We stopped in Shenyurt to make bureaucratic arrangements, and to transfer to four minibuses because the gravel road climbing the mountain was parlous for the coaches.In the village I handed out our surplus of mylar spectacles, trying to favor children and girls over important men and to get my cautions and explanations interpreted.I had, from the map, thought of the mountain as a hill, part of the north wall of the valley; it was surprisingly high, and the gravel road wound around its back, with two hairpin turns, and back to the front, to reach the top.There were radar towers surrounded by a fence; that was apparently why we had to have police "protection".Some of the preceding days had been alarmingly cloudy, others too hot, several times the morning clouds had cleared away, and this was one of those days: cloud-roof as we traveled, then it mostly burned off.Now the sky was about half filled with ragged clumps of cloud, not quite cumuli.

I had assigned people (children as far as possible) to watch for side-aspects of the eclipse, partly so that others wouldn't have to:

Joyce produced name-labels to stick to their chests, I wrote their tasks on, with some diagramming of where to look for Venus and Mercury.My scribbled list certainly served to remind me, gave me a higher score of these peripheral phenomena than before.The "gods" of the phenomena were to give their reports afterwards (and eventually did so, in the coaches on the way to Ankara).

When we got out at the site, we spread my bedsheet that I had snatched from the hotel, weighted it with rocks, and I "ground the mirror" of this optical instrument (for observing shadow-bands) by rolling over it to flatten the tussocky weeds underneath.I thought it would form a focus for the group, but I found most people scattering too widely for communication.So Tilly and I scattered too, found a nest with our backs to a hawthorn bush, slightly down the rounded hillside across a part of the road, where there was a steeper downward view.The flat valley below was five or six miles wide, bending so that Turhal was out of sight to the right.In our dry surroundings, among the thatch of yellow grass, there were many interesting flowers; the animal life was grasshoppers, and swallows swooping over.

People began to come to me with concern about the clouds: they weren't so random as they had seemed, they were forming above our ridge, dissolving as they proceeded over the valley, the sun was visible less than half the time, whereas the valley was regularly under sunshine.(We were in the southern edge of the zone of ranges and valleys parallel to the northern coast; the high air was blowing over from the north-east or north, from the Black Sea.) Everybody gathered for a parliament, which became a little tense; those who planned serious photography and recording were anxious for an assuredly clear view, and someone even said "Anywhere would be better than this!" There was conflicting information as to whether the party could divide and whether the police had to accompany each; I managed to establish that the answer was yes to both, except that those heading back down could not just invade one of the farm fields they could see out on the valley floor.I was one of those content to stay, optimistic that the clouds would dissipate as the eclipse shadow came on, because I had seen it happen before; besides, it took effort to move, the view up here was fine, and by the time of totality the sun would be considerably lower and farther to the right.Three quarters of the party piled hastily into three of the four minibuses and raced away.

Tilly and I took a walk along to the eastern end of the hilltop, where another wire enclosure could be seen around some more equipment.There were people on the other side of it, presumably soldiers, and I said "Let's hurry to see the view before they tell us to go away", and we found ourselves looking very steeply down; and past a spur far below appeared the three minibuses, followed by two military jeeps.Instead of going into the village they stopped on the open ground just before it, presumably to save time in setting up their equipment - there were only a few minutes to first contact.The figures squatting on the hill's end with their backs to the wire fence were not soldiers but a bunch of young men and boys, smoking; they had come up the road clinging to a tractor that one of them drove.With them, learning more words of Turkish, and passing around my two pieces of welder's glass, we watched the first contact.We walked back and relaxed again in our nest.We realized we were uncomfortably hot: the sky was solid blue! The clouds had vanished already (we almost wished for them back), except for a few over distant hills.We began to believe that the light was dimmed and strained - and then we noticed a clear evidence of it: the brownish hillside curving down in front of us looked as if it was under a dim but definite cloud-shadow, yet there was no cloud above! We went up to rejoin our little party, gathered around the bedsheet.There were only thirteen now, plus at least ten Turks, besides the military; it was a closer party in which we could talk to each other, except that two had gone off along the hillside to where they could see to the west.

The heat had gone! - the air was delightful, and moved by light breezes.The ambient light: it was brownish.The pinhole crescents, projectable as usual on people's arms, could not be seen cast through foliage onto the ground, because the only foliage was low bushes and the ground was confused with dry grass.Creatures: the only one Sarah had to report of was a patient donkey on whom some joker put mylar spectacles.

The quickening progression, the shouts of excitement at the narrowing of the light in the sky.The approaching umbra: the low atmosphere had a vague core of dark blue to the west; then one cloud in it went almost black in relation to the few other distant clouds.The false sunset: it was definite to the east, especially one pink-topped cloud.And then, "Shadow bands!" The sheet was filled with them: they were short, jumbled, close together, agitated, rippling southward, at something like one mile an hour, though this speed could be sensed only from the general impression, no individual crest progressing more than a few inches before dying out; they were like choppy water rather than waves.This was the Eclipse of the Shadow Bands: the supposedly elusive phenomenon, which I had only once before definitely seen, was loud, unmistakable.The people who had been away from us along the hillside said that they saw the shadow bands on the ground: that is, on what I would have thought an impossible background of confused dry grass.Someone who had had to stay ill in Yozgat said she saw them: this was more than twenty miles outside the path of totality!

Baily's Beads: I wasn't the only one who didn't really see them happen.The first Diamond Ring: I wasn't the only one who didn't really remember seeing it, hard to tell whether this was because of fumbling from eye-protection to naked eye or optical aid.The usual jubilation at the outburst of the fiery ring in the black sky, the awe of those seeing it for the first time.The corona seemed narrow, all brushes (no petals), concentrated into six or seven spikes (some tangent rather than radial to the sun) which I tried hastily to diagram.The prominences: for many, especially those who had optical aid, this was probably the Eclipse of the Prominences: Dick Brown (deputed to notice them) called out "Prominence at eleven o'clock! at two-thirty!" and so on but had to give up; someone said he counted twenty-seven! One of them was detached, rather like a "disconnection event" in a comet's gas tail, it must have been a huge flame of matter leaping clear of the sun before falling back.Whereas they are usually seen on first one side, then the other, as the moon moves across, in this fairly short and tight eclipse they were seen on both sides together - all around.

Mercury I didn't see, the Mercury child did.No one saw Mars or the stars.I scanned for Sirius low in the south, without much hope because the sky there was such a pale orange - afterwards thought: how could that pale color have graded upward into the blackness I seemed to remember just outside the ring of fire? The Blackness goddess told me it was blue, not much deeper than twilight.The second Diamond Ring - end of totality - was much the more spectacular.And the shadow bands were seen again afterwards.

We descended and found the party below happy too.They had had time to get their equipment set up again before first contact.I had sent my telescope down with Doug McCarty, thinking that in the village he could get a table to stand it on (I had not brought the tripod); but because they did not go into the village it was never used.Though they had stopped on the field outside, word must have flown into the village that they were there, and they had become embedded in a crowd.Some said that was the best part: it was the Eclipse of the Turkish Villagers.I heard a recording of the human noise during totality and its onset - on and on, shouts and screams - but some said all the noise was made by the tourists: the Turks were mainly silent, contemplating the contemplators as much as the eclipse.There was a story of an old lady who refused to believe it was going to happen - "Go away, you're lying!" When it did happen, she was more awed than any, clasped her arms on her chest and gazed at the prodigy and repeated something that must have been "Allahu korusun" or "Allahu akbar!"



1999 Total Eclipse Reports and Photos

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