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Total solar eclipse awes onlookers in Africa

Views of the eclipse

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- The first total solar eclipse of the millennium created a spectacle of darks and lights over central Africa on Thursday, where multitudes of astronomers and eclipse chasers assembled to watch the extraordinary natural event.

They witnessesed quite a show. When the moon blocked the rays of the sun, those in the shadow below saw the sky suddenly darken into twilight, bringing planets and in some cases bright stars into view.

In Lusaka, Zambia, the only capital in the path of the complete shadow, thousands of tourists and researchers were bathed in darkness shortly after 3 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT). The total eclipse lasted just over three minutes.

It produced "one of the longest diamond rings I have ever seen," said one watcher, referring to a single bead of solar light that beams through a mountainous crevice on the edge of moon either moments before or after a total eclipse.

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Watch the solar eclipse over Africa (June 21)

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CNN's Ann Kellan has the path of the eclipse, then watch the eclipse as it happens over Africa (June 21)

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The total eclipse became visible just east of Uruguay this morning and began racing across the South Atlantic at twice the speed of sound. Just out of its reach was St. Helena, a remote island and the resting ground of the bones of the Emperor Napoleon. Some resilient islanders steamed north in charter boats to catch a glimpse of the eclipse.

Three-hour marathon

The shadow passed over central Africa and Madagascar and then disappeared at sunset over the Indian Ocean. The entire marathon lasted a little longer than three hours.

People in a much larger region of the world saw a partial eclipse, with the moon blocking only a fraction of the sun's disk. The partial shadow became visible in Brazil earlier this morning, then spread over the Atlantic. It eventually reached over most of Africa as far north as the central Saharan desert.

For viewing the total eclipse, the best places on terra firma were in central Africa -- Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the southernmost tip of Malawi. In some places, the eclipse lasted longer than four minutes, more than twice as long as the last total solar eclipse in 1999.

Thousands of amateur and professional eclipse watchers were in the region -- most in Zambia, which enjoys more political stability than neighboring nations. Hotels were booked up around prime viewing locations such as the Luangwa game reserve, Kafue National Park and the city of Lusaka.

Lifetime eclipse chaser

Jay Pasachoff, a leading U.S. solar scientist, was in Zambia where he watched his 32nd eclipse.

"The idea that you are outside in the middle of the day and the sky goes dark around you is just astounding," he said. "It is just a wonderful feeling to experience nature in this way."

The Harvard-trained astronomer studied the elusive coronal ring, the outer atmosphere of the sun, which can only be seen when the moon blots out the solar disk.

Pasachoff said he hopes his research will help solve a burning solar question: Why does the surface of the sun simmer at about 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit (6,000 degrees Celsius), while the outer coronal ring around the sun blazes at 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius)?

Myths, legends and war

Solar eclipses have inspired awe for eons. Birds roost in the temporary darkness. Planets and stars appear, as does the corona, the sun's atmosphere, an awesome halo with pearl-like colors usually obscured by the bright solar disk.

The ancients came up with legends to explain the mystifying event. Voracious dragons ate the sun. The sun washed itself during its absence. The sun abandoned the Earth. In fact, the word "eclipse" comes from the Greek word meaning "abandonment."

Whether by banging pots, shooting arrows or chanting, the fearful always managed to make the sun return to its normal perch in the sky.

In central Africa, traditional spiritualists disagreed on the significance of the eclipse. In Zimbabwe, legend holds that the periodic "rotting of the sun" serves as an omen of doom.

"God has some means of showing his anger to his people. An eclipse takes place when people have sinned. It is an indicator of upcoming problems, death, illness, drought or incurable diseases," said Peter Sibanda, spokesman for the national traditional healers association.

In Zambia and parts of Zimbabwe, one tribe views eclipses in a different light. The Ngoni migrated from South Africa around 1830 to escape the great warrior Shaka Zulu. A solar eclipse and a great celebration marked the day they crossed the Zambezi to their new homeland, said NASA astronomer Fred Espenak. The 2001 eclipse gave rise to further celebration of the historic exodus, he said.

Modern science has given little credence to eclipse legends, but the reverence with which some view the periodic celestial event remains. Contemporary eclipse hunters spend lifetimes chasing solar eclipses, which they describe as addictive experiences unmatched by other phenomena.

"The sequence of events at an eclipse is so remarkable that it takes experience at one to understand. And a high percentage of people find the experience so wonderful that they want to return," Pasachoff said.

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• The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

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