ACCRA, Ghana – Schoolchildren cheered as the first total eclipse in years plunged Ghana into daytime darkness Wednesday, a solar show sweeping northeast from Brazil to Mongolia.
As the heavens and Earth moved into rare alignment, all that could be seen of the sun were the rays of its corona — the usually invisible extended atmosphere of the sun that glowed a dull yellow for about three minutes, barely illuminating the west African nation.
Automatic street lights flickered on, authorities sounded whistles and schoolchildren burst into applause across Ghana's capital, Accra. Many in the deeply religious country of Christians and Muslims said the phenomenon bolstered their faith.
"I believe it's a wonderful work of God, despite all what the scientists say," said Solomon Pomenya, a 52-year old doctor. "This tells me that God is a true engineer."
The last such eclipse in November 2003 was best viewed from Antarctica, said Alex Young, a NASA scientist involved in solar research.
About 12,000 tourists from 40 countries and 20,000 Libyans trekked out to three viewing spots in Libya — one on the border with Egypt and two deep in the desert, Libya's Tourism Ministry said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his wife and several ministers joined 8,000 tourists and astronomers from six countries in Solloum, Egypt. The town lay nearly dead center in the path of the total eclipse, giving spectators nearly four minutes of darkness starting at 12:38 p.m.
In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite Muslims were summoned to their mosques during the partial eclipse for a special prayer reserved for times of fear and natural disasters.
Dozens shut down shops and left offices to gather in mosques, particularly in the southern city of Basra, home to many devout Muslims.
Even in Baghdad, which has been wracked by violence in recent days, people congregated to look at the sky. Inside mosques, they shouted "God is great."
A total eclipse could be seen in Nalchik, Russia, about 870 miles south of Moscow. People on the streets screamed, some with fear and some in wonder, and they were joined by the cawing of crows when the city fell into darkness and temperatures plunged suddenly.
In Turkey's Mediterranean town of Side, hundreds of people streamed down a main street, some carrying tripods, to an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the sun god Apollo, as market sellers hawked T-shirts and protective glasses.
It was "spiritual and emotional," said Brian Faltinson of Victoria, Canada, who was in Turkey to witness his second eclipse. "It just about made me cry."
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."
An ancient Roman theater in Side, astronomers and scientists from NASA and the San Francisco-based Exploratorium science museum made last-minute preparations for a live broadcast. The theater, which had a capacity of 15,000 in ancient times, was expected to host 2,000 people.
"It's one of those experiences that makes you feel like you're part of the larger universe," said NASA astronomer Janet Luhman.
Tens of thousands crowded onto the Turkish Mediterranean coast, which NASA said would be the best spot to view the eclipse. 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.
From Ghana to Libya and Syria, schools closed and streets emptied. West African governments scrambled to educate people about the dangers of looking at the eclipse without proper eye protection.
"Imagine if your hair was to stand up from static electricity — that's kind of what the corona looks like all around the sun," NASA's Young said.
But the corona's light can burn eyes.
In Togo, authorities imported hundreds of thousands of pairs of special glasses that consumers cleared rapidly from shelves in the capital, Lome. But villagers in the interior did not have access to the eyewear and officials called on them to stay home.
In Ghana people spent about $1 for "solar shades" — paper-rimmed glasses with dark plastic lenses that resemble eyewear used for 3-D movies.
The total eclipse moved on to Mongolia, where it faded out with the sunset.
Superstition accompanied its path, as it has 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 some 17,000 people just six days after a solar eclipse.
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.