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Total solar eclipse streaks across Earth

Schoolchildren and scientists watch the skies as the moon's dark shadow speeds across Earth's surface from Brazil to Mongolia, marking the first total solar eclipse since 2003.
Schoolchildren wear protective glasses to watch the solar eclipse in Accra, Ghana, on Wednesday. The total eclipse could be seen along a track extending from Brazil to Mongolia, and a partial eclipse was visible from wide stretches of Africa, Asia and Europe.Olivier Asselin / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Schoolchildren shouted and even scientists shed a tear as the moon's dark shadow sped across Earth's surface from Brazil to Mongolia on Wednesday, marking the first total solar eclipse in more than two years.

"God is great, this shows the greatness of God," Nana Appah exclaimed as she joined the crowds on Ghana's Cape Coast beach. "This shows the greatness of nature. It is very, very beautiful. I’ve never experienced anything like this before."

Cape Coast was one of the first spots on the African continent to fall under the spell of totality, which drew tourists to Libya, Egypt and Turkey as well.

The last total solar eclipse was visible primarily over Antarctica in 2003. Although totality could be seen only from a narrow track of territory, the partial eclipse was visible this time around from wide stretches of Africa, Europe and Asia. No part of Wednesday's eclipse could be seen from North America, however.

Wednesday’s eclipse blocked out the sun entirely in highly populated areas — including West Africa, where governments scrambled to educate people about the dangers of looking at a partial eclipse without proper eye protection. Across Africa, pairs of simple sunglasses were distributed or sold to allow people to view the eclipse safely, but many complained they could not obtain or afford them. In Togo, the government urged parents to keep childrens indoors.

Prayers and praise in Ghana
The air cooled and an eerie half-light descended over the ancient slave fort at Cape Coast, west of Ghana’s capital Accra, as the moon obscured the sun for approximately three minutes. Cries of “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lord” rang out as watchers shouted and clapped in excitement, sharing protective glasses. Drivers hooted their horns.

Foreign tourists traveled to Ghana especially to see the eclipse. For 51-year-old amateur astronomer Lou Petterchak, from Denver, it was the fifth he had witnessed.

“I am touring the world, one eclipse at a time. I enjoy the eclipse, it is much more of an excuse to travel,” he said.

“The eclipse is the coolest natural phenomenon I have ever seen in my life,” said another U.S. tourist, Evelyn Alton. “I turn 50 next month, it is kind of a treat for my birthday,” she added.

Dancing in Egypt
Across the continent at Sallum, an Egyptian town on the border with Libya, thousands of people — including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne — gathered to watch. Some onlookers blew trumpets, beat drums and danced.

“I feel excited. This is the first time I’ve seen something like this in life,” Egyptian Hady Gohar said.

Though only a partial eclipse was visible at the Giza pyramids outside Cairo, the significance of the sun to the ancient Egyptians drew vistors to the site.

“The eclipse is a special moment in time and the shape of the pyramids attracts a universal energy spiral,” Robin, a Dutch visitor who did not give his full name, told Reuters.

Longest view in Libya
The longest view — four minutes and seven seconds — was at Libya’s Wao Namus settlement near the Chadian border 2,000 km (1,250 miles) south of Tripoli. About 12,000 tourists from 40 countries and 20,000 Libyans trekked out there and two other viewing spots, Libya’s Tourism Ministry said.

Cheers and tears in Turkey
In Turkey’s Mediterranean town of Side, hundreds of people flocked to an ancient Roman amphitheater to view the eclipse, as market sellers hawked T-shirts and protective glasses. People gathered on the fallen stones and collapsed columns of a temple dedicated to Apollo — god of the sun — or on rocks at a beach about 40 feet away.

Cheers and screams went up as the eclipse reached totality.

Day turned to night, and a delicate corona — the usually invisible extended atmosphere of the sun — glowed around the edges of the moon as it came between the earth and the sun. Through telescopes, observers could see tiny red prominences licking up from the sun's obscured disk.

Joaquim Boix traveled from Barcelona, Spain, to view the eclipse. He said he became addicted to eclipses after seeing one in Germany. “It’s fantastic,” Boix said. “It’s the color, the metallic blue-green color on the skin of the people. The sky with the stars in the background. Usually you watch the stars in a black background. ... The background is blue. It’s a special feeling.”

Less than four minutes after darkness fell, the moon moved on and the amphitheater brightened again in the Turkish afternoon.

For Isabel Hawkins, a NASA-sponsored astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, the total solar eclipse was a first. She admitted to shedding a tear or two as she co-hosted a live broadcast of the festivities, organized by the San Francisco-based Exploratorium science museum and NASA.

"This is fabulous," she said.

Turks welcomed the tourism boost after a recent bird flu outbreak and protests over the caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. “It should happen more often,” said Hamza Bikmaz who was selling eclipse T-shirts outside the theater.

Thousands crowd tiny Greek island
More than 3,000 visitors crammed the Greek island of Kastellorizo, the only spot in Europe where the total eclipse was visible. Birds on the tiny island fell silent and the temperature dropped several degrees.

The sleepy island, deep in Greece’s backwater, is just a stone’s throw from the southern Turkish coast, and the solar eclipse thrust it back into the spotlight. Most hotel rooms on the island, which now has about 200 permanent residents, were booked by scientists years in advance. All remaining rooms were snapped up in the past months forcing authorities to open a public hall for overnight guests. Hundreds of tourists set up tents across the island, slept in the open or even on fishing boats.

“We are living the good old days when the island had 15,000 inhabitants, just like in the stories we heard from our grandmothers,” restaurant owner Maritsa Mayafi said.

Prayers in Iraq and India
Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq were summoned to mosques during the eclipse for a special prayer reserved for times of fear and natural disasters.

In northern India, hundreds of thousands of Hindus dipped in holy rivers and ponds to rid themselves of sin and ward off what they believe are the ill effects of the phenomenon.

“This gives me a great feeling of salvation and rids me of evil,” farmer Ram Narayan said after taking a dip in Allahabad.

Astronauts ponder significance
At Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome, American and Russian astronauts waiting to be launched into space on Thursday offered reporters contrasting comments on the phenomenon.

U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams called it “an example of what has fascinated people throughout history and has inspired people for discovery and exploration, to understand why things like that happen.”

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov seemed less impressed. “Maybe it meant something to ancient Egyptians but we now understand that it’s just the moon passing between the earth and the sun. It’s nothing terrible.”

Superstition and science
Superstitions followed the eclipse around the world, as they have for generations.

One Indian paper advised pregnant women not to go outside during the eclipse to avoid having a blind baby or one with a cleft lip. Food cooked before the eclipse should be thrown out afterward because it will be impure, and those who are holding a knife or ax during the eclipse will cut themselves, the Hindustan Times added.

In Turkey’s earthquake-prone Tokat province, residents set up tents outside, despite assurances from scientists that there was no evidence of any link between eclipses and tremors. In August 1999, an earthquake in northwestern Turkey killed about 17,000 people just six days after a solar eclipse.

Along the path of totality, the moon blacked out the sun for up to four minutes. That is longer than most eclipses, which only last a minute or two, according to a NASA statement.

Total eclipses are rare because they require the tilted orbits of the sun, moon and earth to line up exactly so that the moon obscures the sun completely. The next total eclipse will occur in 2008.

The Associated Press, Reuters and contributed to this report.