The most common response when we told people we were going to Iran was, "Why?".The initial reason was the total solar eclipse, but I was also looking forward to seeing a country that is almost unknown to most Americans.I had a friend in Iran who had made contacts and arrangements and promised us a great trip, but there were still a lot of unknowns awaiting us.Except for clear skies for the eclipse, of course, which was as close to a certainty as it can get.By the time we left Iran, we had learned to expect the unexpected.
After close to 24 hours of traveling, we found ourselves in a gray building with long lines inching toward passport control, all presided over by the stern, larger than life countenance of Ayatollah Khomeini.With my wife now covered from head to toe as required by Islamic law, I wondered what the reaction would be when I handed over my US passport.Other than extra paperwork a ritual we learned to expect at every hotel all went smoothly.A few minutes later we were careening through the streets of Tehran in my friend Hassan's car listening to reggae music.This was the type of contradiction we learned to expect.
Tehran was interesting but not a warm and cozy place to me.A highlight was visiting the office of Nojum - Iranian Astronomy Magazine, the only astronomy magazine in the Middle East.We were to travel around much of the country and observe the eclipse with amateur astronomers who worked or volunteered at Nojum, and the editor-in-chief, Dr. Mansour Vesali, was to join us for much of our travels.Nojum had published a special eclipse edition which I looked over with interest and admiration.Although I couldn't read the text, the many pictures and diagrams spoke a universal language that I am familiar with and I was impressed with how comprehensive the issue was.The office was flooded with volunteers mostly young women in black scarves and coats answering phones and selling aluminized mylar eclipse viewing glasses (certified safe, of course).Because Tehran would not see a total eclipse, Nojum had arranged a tour for 160 people into the eclipse path.On top of all of this activity they had also made plans for us.We didn't yet appreciate just how much they were planning to do for us.We had heard of Iranian hospitality but couldn't have comprehended how far it would go.
We left Tehran in an 18-seat mini-bus, a common sight on the highways of Iran.There was one other American with us, Fred Pan, an amateur astronomer from Texas.Fred is Chinese-American but was always taken to be Japanese.Arvind Paranjpye, an astronomer from India, would be with us until the eclipse.The remainder of our group of nine or ten (the size varied) was made up of Iranian astronomers.We had three days until the eclipse and were going to sample the history and many cultures of the country before and for a few days after the natural event that had brought us to Iran.That seemed like enough time to get a taste of the country, but we hadn't yet realized how much there is to see and experience there.
Over the next few days we visited fortresses, palaces and enormous rock carvings built by the many cultures that have traveled through or invaded the Iranian plateau for several millennia.The reference to the USA as the "Melting Pot" of cultures over the last 200 years began to sound rather hollow.Here were the remains of 2500 years of dynasties of Persia, the ancient civilizations of the Medeans, Elamites, Babylonians.Here were the scars of the invading armies of Alexander the Great from the west, Genghis Khan from the east, the Arabs bringing Islam from the west.Here were the descendants of people that had moved into Iran millennia ago and then moved on to populate Europe and much of Asia.History lay about the country like stones, most unturned; there are thousands of mounds visible as you travel, each an outcropping of the topmost of multiple layers of civilization buried beneath the Earth of a farmer's field, awaiting excavation.We visited one such mound, and laying about were shards of pottery formed by the hands of those that had lived there years ago, centuries ago, millennia ago.Four thousand years of artifacts laying about to be picked up how many generations had lived in that same place?
We hadn't realized at first that one of the Iranians with us was an archaeologist from the National Museum.Shahrokh turned out to be an encyclopedia; he gave us much more than we could ever absorb, but we never tired of it.When we would see a tablet with an inscription in three ancient languages, Shahrokh would read them to us so that we could hear the similarities and differences in the languages.How many people are fluent in Babylonian, Sumerian, Elamite, ancient Persian? Shahrokh had worked at the excavations that we visited.He even made new discoveries at the sites we visited.He had an enquiring mind, keen eye and enthusiasm to match any I've seen.
The other surprise was the people.We'd known to expect hospitality, even to those of us from the Great Satan.What we hadn't expected was the warmth of the welcome that we received.Wherever we went, people approached us to ask where we were from.On hearing that we were from America ("USA" and "United States" usually weren't recognized), we were welcomed to Iran with wishes for a good trip.The point was stressed that they love the American people though not the American government (I told them I didn't like the American government much either; they always smiled at that).They asked what we expected before coming to Iran and what we thought of Iran now that we'd visited it ourselves.The same questions were repeated when I was twice interviewed for television.We were offered tea by a villager we met in a Mongol fortress, Kurdish nomads who came to talk to us as we took pictures of their sheep herd from the road and an old lady in a subsistence-level mud and straw brick building we gave some old shoes to.
And then there was the eclipse.We had seen clouds form each afternoon in Hamadan province and were concerned about the prospects for our afternoon eclipse.Dr. Vesali checked with the head of the government meteorology office the day before the eclipse and was told that the sky should be good.We also heard that Isfahan -- the large city in the path of totality that was the center of most eclipse activities was overcast.All this despite the forecast based on climatological data that suggested more than 90% chances of clear skies over the whole region.Murphy's Law had been invoked for the eclipse, once again.The morning of the eclipse the sky was perfectly clear, better than we'd seen so far.We were encouraged.That morning we visited an ancient royal audience hall and the oldest existing Zoroastrian fire temple, all on a hill with a commanding view of a broad valley in the Zagros Mountains.Since we were now in the eclipse path, I wondered aloud at how spectacular an observing site it would be.We went on to Nahavand, though, our eclipse observing site.
Nahavand was one of several towns celebrating the eclipse.The sports complex was crowded with souvenir stands and buyers outside with a show of local tribes' music and dance inside.We were admitted to the VIP section where we were visible enough to attract photographers' attention as much as the planned festivities.We were treated to lunch afterward Dr.Vesali's presence in our group insured special treatment by local officials in several towns and then headed for the observing chosen by the Nojum staff.On the way we dispensed eclipse shades that were printed in Farsi.I'd picked up 800 pairs from Rainbow Symphony at very low cost for the people of Iran and had been distributing them from Tehran on.The observing site was on a hill high above Nahavand that served as a communication center.There was a small, round flat-topped building where most of us set up, some on the roof and others (including me) on cement in front of it.I had an 80mm Swarovski spotting scope with a Thousand Oaks Type 2+ filter.I had no plans other than to view prominences with the scope and take wide-angle shots of the Sun (altitude 44 degrees) and surroundings during totality.Our site had a spectacular view of Nahavand in a valley surrounded by the Zagros mountains, with great terrain for watching the approaching shadow.
The clouds had started to build in the afternoon, though not as much as the previous days.First contact was visible but broken altocumulus still threatened.As the eclipse progressed, the Sun was occasionally obscured completely.We were stuck at this location, though; at this point, getting off the hill and moving any distance would take too long.From the town below we heard prayer coming from the mosque, a special prayer session for the eclipse.They prayed from first contact to fourth contact but took a break from second to third contact to witness the event they were praying over.Suddenly, my wife alerted everyone with shouts of "Shadow bands! Shadow bands!".Twenty years earlier at our first eclipse I had refused to look down when she tried to ask me about these strange, squiggly lines that she and our three young children had seen moving over the terrain.Finally, thanks to her persistence, I saw them at my fourth total eclipse.They were atypical, based on what I've learned about them.They were very distinct with the shadows being much narrower than the space between them, and they moved very rapidly from south to north.They were easily taped by a television crew with a handheld camera.
In the meantime, easy access to my telescope had caused quite a crowd to surround it and I decided to move it shortly before second contact so that I might be able to use it myself during totality.Fussing with the scope, I failed to realize just how close totality was and I was surprised by the sudden darkening in the distance as the shadow approached.There wasn't a distinct edge to the shadow this time but just a darkness that seemed to descend from above to cover the valley below and fill in the light areas between the shadows of the clouds.I am actually glad that it caught me by surprise because it was a different experience than being prepared and waiting.It was more primal somehow, even more overwhelming and scary than usual.The Sun had failed to completely clear one small cloud but the corona showed through it.I noticed the brightness of the inner corona more than the outer corona but that might have been partly due to the cloud.It seemed to get darker around us than at the other eclipses I've witnessed.I don't think was due to the clouds, which covered only about 30% of the sky.I failed to reacquire the Sun in the scope and finally gave up, discovering later that in the last-minute move I'd forgotten to take the filter off.Handheld photos were impractical because they required longer exposures than I've used before but I ran out of time getting the scope off the tripod and the camera onto it, even with a quick release system.I was pleased to find later that I did get some beautiful handheld shots despite some movement, capturing the Sun, clouds lit by the corona, distant sunlit mountains and the town below looking spectacular with lights intentionally turned on (far enough below not to disturb photographers on the hill).The Diamond Ring at third contact burst out and I waited for it to subside as Bailey's Beads appeared but it never did.The Ring just kept growing until the chromosphere was showing through.I'd never seen anything like that before.It was a beautiful eclipse and an awesome and overwhelming experience, as always.
That night we traveled to Broujerd, another town that had a huge eclipse gathering.We were hosted by the governor there, which was a good thing since the hotels were full; they found us accommodations in a visiting professor residence and treated us to dinner.The next night we stayed in cabins near a lake in the desert and spent the last few hours before dawn observing the Perseid meteor shower.The shower was good but not spectacular.
There were several more days of travel after the eclipse, more historical sites, more cultures, more nomads traveling the open spaces, royal palaces and tombs and more questions, welcomes and good wishes.On every eclipse trip there are enduring images, from the eclipse, at least.This trip was much more.I wish the people of Iran clear skies during this difficult time of change.
Last revised: 2008 Jan 28