Ra, the Egyptian Sun god didn't have to worry about eclipses. Whereas many ancient civilizations and cultures had references to eclipses and told stories such as the sun being eaten or destroyed by animals or evil spirits (Chinese dragons and Incan jaguars), there is no mention of eclipses in any Egyptian writings or tomb decorations. Perhaps because they understood this phenomenon. Plutarch reports that the ancient Egyptian astronomers explained eclipses as being caused by the passage of the Moon between the Sun and earth during daylight hours. What a novel idea!
In fact, the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006 brought good luck and riches to Egypt. Thousands of tourists, spending money, trekked there. We took part in one of several tours sponsored by TravelQuest International and Sky and Telescope magazine. The path of totality stretched from off the coast of Brazil to the Mongolian border. Other groups went to Turkey, Libya, or took a Mediterranean cruise. The eleven-day tour took us from Cairo in the north to Abu Simbel in the south, and west to Sallum for the eclipse.
Security is very tight in all of Egypt. There is a special police force, the Tourism and Antiquities Police, that guards and patrols tourist areas and all around the museums and monuments. (Even on camels at the great pyramids.) They are also posted on many street corners. For once we were not warned against pickpockets. It would have to be a desperate (or foolish) person to attempt a crime while a policeman armed with an AK-47 stood just meters away. We don't know how much training these police had, but they seemed vigilant and helpful.
While in Cairo, evidently this protection was deemed enough. But when we left the city we were provided with a guard who rode shotgun, almost literally. A very nicely dressed young man "packing a pretty hefty piece" rode on each tourist bus all the way to the eclipse and back. (On the Nile cruise two uniformed policemen sat on the bridge.)
Since Sallum is about 600 kilometers from Cairo, our group drove by coach to Marsa Matrouh, a resort city on the Mediterranean Sea, the day before. This was still about a 2.5-hour drive from Sallum, but the closest place with adequate hotel facilities.
On the way we stopped at the El Alamein WWII museum and cemetery. The museum describes the North African Campaign and its end with the Battle of El Alamein. It has extensive exhibits for several of the different forces fighting there: the British, the Egyptians, the Germans, and the Italians. Derelict planes, tanks and other armored vehicles stand guard around the museum, overlooking the Mediterranean. Nearby is the Commonwealth Cemetery for the Allied Forces. The cemetery is beautifully designed and landscaped, but grim all the same. Here 11,945 soldiers, sailors, marines -- many unknown -- are remembered. All so young, so young.
For the eclipse, the government had set up areas for viewing at a military base at Sallum, on the Libyan border, on a high plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Viewers converged there with telescopes, cameras, binoculars, and special sunglasses.
The optimum place to view the eclipse, i.e. longest totality, was actually on the Libyan/Chad border, not the friendliest place, although some groups did get permission to go into Libya.
There was a festive air as local musicians, and entertainers (including a dancing horse) performed for the crowds of people. Since first contact (when the moon's shadow first touches the sun) was at 11:20:04 am, we expected to be able to mosey in at leisure. Not so. The government required that all groups be in place by 8:00 am, when they shut down the roads. There were more telescopes per square meter than anywhere else in the world that day! Although some setups required a bit of time, most of us were ready in less than 30 minutes. This is Phil Seeger with his setup.
We discovered the reason the early hour was mandated: President Mubarak and other officials and dignitaries were also coming to view the eclipse from this prime site, and would be just across the road from us. Security was extremely tight. No one was allowed to enter or leave the site while he was there. Egypt has had some bad terrorist attacks, especially on tourists, and with the President in the area as well, this was a tempting opportunity.
At precisely 11:20:04 am someone announced first contact, and eyes were turned to the sky. This silhouette of the moon was taken about an hour and 11 minutes after first contact. The solar filter was removed after this exposure.
The moon continued to "take a bite" out of the sun until 12:38:02 pm, second contact and the beginning of totality.
A couple of minutes before totality, in the strange twilight, an unearthly silence fell over the crowd. Then, shouts and applause; exclamations and expressions of wonder and awe.
As our eyes adapted to the sudden darkness, the corona of the sun seemed to grow. This is the effect that eclipse chasers travel the world to see. This was our seventh total eclipse, and one of the most beautiful. A "diamond ring" effect, Bailey's beads, and prominences were observed. The 3 minutes, 56 seconds went very quickly.
Third contact (when totality ends) is an anti-climax for the old-timers. But the first-timers and the really dedicated eclipsers still watch as the sun slowly increases until it is whole once again. At 1:59:54, fourth contact, the moon's shadow entirely slipped from view. (Probably more watchers stayed to the end than had planned to. No buses were allowed back in to the site until Pres. Mubarak had been safely spirited away.)
Back to the Beau Site Hotel in Marsa Matrouh for a victory celebration. Lots of excitement and high spirits. Thanks to the miracle of digital photography, pictures and videos were shared.
There are eclipses in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but location and weather prospects are not as favorable. But Americans may plan for Aug. 21, 2017, when a total eclipse more than 2 minutes long will cross the United States all the way from Oregon to South Carolina.
A file with additional eclipse pictures (and some higher resolution copies of these) may be downloaded from this site.
Barbara Seeger, Photos by Phil Seeger