At 7 am this past Friday, a few astronomy enthusiasts gathered at the plaza of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to watch the first solar eclipse of the year. They were waiting to see the moon cross the face of the sun and block part of its light.
A photographer getting his camera ready talks to a fellow photographer and asks “so do you take photos? A teenage boy and girl hold a conversation about why eclipses happen. Two children wearing swine flu masks stray away from their parents and their mother runs chasing after them. A young woman breathes in her morning cigarette smoke along with the fresh sea breeze as she reads the instruction on the sundial sitting next to the planetarium.
Everyone was wondering why the sun and the moon weren’t visible yet. Some were also wondering why they were told that observing the eclipse will begin at 7 am but they ended up waiting in the morning cold with nothing to do or see.
At 7:30 am, someone started cutting little pieces of what looked like an aluminum foil roll and told the gathered crowd of a little less than a hundred to use this semi-transparent solar filter to look at the sun. At the east side of the plaza, everyone was holding up their filters against their eyes and one could start hearing the younger observers’ gasps and the older ones proclaiming “subhan Allah – an Arabic expression of awe.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Ra the sun god and its son Thout – the moon and wisdom god – were sometimes depicted during eclipses as a cat and snake. In a solar eclipse, the snake bites the cat and the cat returns the ball by casting a shadow on the moon which makes a lunar eclipse.
In old India, China, and other places, the eclipse narratives have their roots in the cosmology. Rahu is the snake, Indian myths hold, that sometimes eats the sun and sometimes the moon causing eclipses. The Chinese pictured a dragon which eats the sun and they would produce great noise and commotion during an eclipse, banging on pots and drums to frighten away the dragon.
As for today’s rituals, some Muslims still observe an eclipse prayer (Salat Al-Ksouf) in both solar and lunar eclipses.
Through the solar filter, “the disk of sun looked like a cookie after someone takes a good bite off of it, said the Bibliotheca’s lead astronomer of the planetarium science center and event organizer Ayman Ibrahim. The rare sight with the moon eclipsing about a quarter of the sun lasted about an hour and a half.
As exciting as this astronomical phenomenon was, after a while there was really nothing to do and people started leaving. Those expecting more out of the observation session, to see the sun through a telescope equipped with a solar filter, were disappointed. Astronomer Ibrahim also expressed his regret about not having a telescope in the event and pointed out that the reason behind this was that telescopes were being relocated and moved around in the planetarium s storage rooms.
The lack of a telescope and the flyer passed an hour after the observation began stating that it’s harmful to look straight at the sun – not just at the time of an eclipse but on any other day as well – showed that the event’s organization was poor.
Abdallah Ibrahim, a jogger who came to observe the eclipse, told Daily News Egypt that the organization of the event could have been better.
Soon after the moon moved across the face of the sun, people were invited to a lecture on the sun, moon and the eclipse. Some history, a collection of astronomy photos, and a few animations kept the children as well as the adults excited as Ayman Ibrahim talked and requested the audience’s interaction.
Although the lecture didn’t end with a proper question and answer session, attendees gathered around the lecturer afterwards and swarmed him with question about everything astronomy.
Sadly though, the target audience of the lecture was clearly children and not adults. On purpose, the lecturer didn’t cover one semi-advanced elementary eclipse question: Why are eclipses rare? The answer – because the plane of the moon’s orbit around the earth is inclined to the earth’s orbit around the sun by about five degrees, so the moon and sun don’t intersect often in the sky – would have been more appreciated by adults.
Because eclipses are rare, there will be hopefully enough time before the next partial solar eclipse for the Bibliotheca to offer its visitors a more organized event and a telescope to get more out of it.
As for the next total solar eclipse, it will be a sight but only to those willing to go deep south in Chile or Argentina. Occurring on July 11 and minutes before the first whistle of the final match of the football world cup to be played in South Africa, the whole world will be treated to two grand shows at the same time. Now that’s good organization.