Rendezvous of the sun and the moon

Our eclipse correspondent witnesses ancient treasures and a modern miracle in Iran.

Published August 11, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

Aug. 8: This morning I awoke to the most terrifying sight I might ever have imagined in Iran: clouds. The total solar eclipse is but half a week away, and the sky is covered with a thin, but opaque, layer of fluff that may well obscure our viewing. This is painfully ironic, as the very reason Geographic Expeditions chose Iran for its eclipse trip was that NASA predicted a 98 percent chance of clear skies -- as opposed to around 50 percent in Europe or 80-something percent in Turkey.

The one ray of hope is that we are currently in Shiraz, about 550 miles south of Tehran, not far from the Persian Gulf. Isfahan, where we will observe the eclipse, is halfway to Tehran, on the inland side of the Zagros Mountains. It's much less likely to be cloudy. Still, the sight gave our small group a scare, and we spent breakfast debating, half-jokingly, whether we might consider catching a flight back to Bucharest.

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Shiraz is one of the most ancient cities in the world; there are reliable records of complex trading societies existing here for more than 25 centuries. The ruins of Persepolis, a sort of New Year's resort palace that had been under construction for two centuries when it was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., lie about 30 miles north; farther north still is Pasargadae, where the Persian empire was born three centuries earlier. There's not a heck of a lot to admire in these ruins, and the once sylvan landscape is now parched and bare, but one definitely gets the impression of antiquity. It makes a place like New York or San Francisco -- the whole of North America, practically -- seem awkwardly adolescent.

Shiraz is one of those places where the idea of Persia -- Persia as a state of mind -- takes on real meaning. Take the name, for one thing: Shir Raz, "City of Mystery." It was known for centuries as a place of nightingales, roses and poets. The Syrah grape originated here, and the local wine was the favorite of such poet/mystics as Sa'adi, Hafez and Omar Khayyam. These days, of course, the strongest thing you can get is non-alcoholic beer.

There are 16 universities and 59,000 students in Shiraz. More than half of them are women. And quite a few of them seem to be poets -- or at least of poetic temperament. One certainly concludes as much after watching an endless stream of black-shrouded females prostrate themselves, weeping, upon the tomb of Hafez.

Both Hafez (born in 1324) and Sa'adi (1210) lived, died and were buried here in Shiraz. Between them, they more or less represent the pinnacles of Persian literature. Sa'adi was a practical sort of writer who, like Shakespeare, added a vast number of colloquial expressions to his culture. "I complained that I had no shoes," wrote Sa'adi, "until I met a man who had no legs." Or, "You have two ears and one mouth -- so best to listen twice before speaking once." In short, he was full of the sort of phrases parents use to torment their children.

Hafez, on the other hand, was a lyrical mystic. As a young man, he could recite the entire Quran by heart, hence the appellation "hafez," which literally means "one who remembers." One of the many wits in our tour group asked Ali, our imperturbable guide, if he knew the word for "one who forgets."

"It's actually very interesting," Ali replied. "The word, also from Arabic, is 'ensun' -- which also means 'human being.' For it is said that all humans once knew God and his teachings, but have forgotten them."

There is a tradition, at the tomb of Hafez, that the visitor make a wish, open at random the collected poetry of Hafez and place his finger upon the page. Thus is one's fortune revealed. Ever a sucker for such omens, I strode over to the little bookshop and located a copy of "Hafez in English." I performed the rite without delay, with the following result:

"Twas morning, and the Lord of day/Had shed his light o'er Shiraz' towers/Where bulbuls trill their love-lorn lay/To serenade the maiden flowers."

The message, which reminded me powerfully of the Jabberwock, seemed to indicate no relief in my struggle against jet lag.

There are many lovely mosques and mausoleums in Shiraz. The most beautiful is undoubtedly the Bogh'e-ye Shah-e Cheragh (I only ever learned the Cheragh part). The history behind the personage honored in this shrine (i.e. the brother of the eighth grandson of the Prophet Mohammad) is maddeningly complicated, but he was called the King of the Lamp and died (or was poisoned like his brother; one never knows for sure in Persia) back in 835.

Let me interject that for an "ensun" such as myself, there is a tremendous amount of history to be overlooked if one is to enjoy Iran. The string of eras, dates, deeds, sackings, sieges, poisonings, seductions, dynasties, imams, Alis, eighth-grand-brothers and rulers named Xerxes is enough to make you throw your guidebook at the wall.

This frustration evaporates instantly, however, the instant one steps, shoeless, into that Cheragh place. It is unbelievable. My friend on this journey, Sam, told me he'd seen the place featured in a film called "Baraka," but I cannot imagine a film could do this shrine justice. The entire interior is an intricate mosaic of tiny mirrors, covering every inch of the high walls and vaulted ceilings. Chandeliers hung in their midst; morning light poured in through the colored glass.

Sam and I entered during a mid-morning call to prayer and stood there with our mouths open. It was like falling into a kaleidoscope loaded with diamonds. I might have stayed there forever, but we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by several hundred Iranian schoolboys. Mirrors, they see every day, but two Americans -- now that's something. They massed around us, their notebooks open, begging for autographs.

Aug. 9: In the Shiraz bazaar -- not the main bazaar but the "nomadic" bazaar, where women from the country shop for colorful dresses and lively applique "rusaris" (the code of dress is less strict for women who have to milk cows) -- a cloth seller asked me about my impressions of Iran. "Is our country," he asked, "as you expected from reading the newspapers in America?"

I told him that it was not. From everything I have experienced, Iran is one of the most hospitable countries on Earth. In the course of a single hour Sam and I were plied with free yoghurt, toured through the adobe alleyways of old Shiraz by a bright and ironic 16-year-old (the cloth seller's son) and offered food samples off the plates of our fellow diners at a local lunch joint. Everywhere we roamed the locals asked after us and welcomed us sincerely. One never forgets where one is -- portraits of the ayatollahs hang everywhere, frowning above the masses on their clouds of beard -- but there is no air of religious fanaticism or prejudice. I'd be willing to bet that Salman Rushdie could wander the bazaars unmolested.

On the other hand, it's not as if there is no reaction at all. At the mirrored mosque, a man approached and began haranguing me in Farsi. Ali, translating, explained that the individual wanted to know why America feels the ever-present need to meddle in the affairs of other nations; why it supports only those countries in which it has a vested commercial interest; why there is so much intolerance of the idea that a country like Iran or Cuba might pursue an alternate system of government.

These were pointed questions, and I did my best both to defuse them and to answer them honestly. I think we were able to agree, by the end of our conversation, that the winds of change may be blowing, at least as far as American-Iranian relations are concerned. Over 20,000 tourists are visiting Iran for the eclipse, and the numbers will stay large as the true season begins in the fall. In 2002, New York's Asia Society is sponsoring an enormous show of art of Persia's Safavid Period (1502-1722). Most of all, of course, there is the optimism generated by reformist President Khatami -- and by the fact that he was elected with 70 percent of the popular vote.

There's no question that Iran is in the midst of a tremendously exciting and delicate time. It seems the entire country is holding its breath, waiting to see what the ultimate outcome of July's student demonstrations will be. In my first dispatch, I wrote briefly of the contradiction inherent in Iranian social life; of the fascination, attraction and loathing Iranians feel toward America and the West. The word I used was ambivalence, but Iranians are more severe with themselves. "We're a nation of hypocrites," one fairly conservative individual told me. "We know this. But as the political tide shifts, you will see that more and more people come around to Khatami's side."

People are fed up with the inflexibility of religious law, he suggested, and would love to see a change. When I asked why President Khatami had not taken a harder line -- why he so quickly capitulated to the Supreme Leader by condemning the protests -- my friend laughed. "It's because he is smart. Change must occur very slowly, very carefully," he said. Things in Iran transpire at their own pace, and cannot be pushed. "If there is one wrong move, the entire process of reform will crumble."

Iran could have played it safe, and kept its doors more carefully guarded during the eclipse. The very fact that the government allowed so many thousands of Japanese and European tourists to enter -- as well as our small American group -- is a sign that the fist of suspicion may be opening. As I said to the man who cornered me near the mosque: Anything could happen. I would not be at all surprised if Khatami turns out to be the Gorbachev (or at least the Kruschev) of Iran. If so, the next U.S. president may well establish fresh diplomatic ties with the ancient and ingenious civilization of Persia.

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It is considerably later. I'm sitting at the traditional outdoor teahouse that adjoins Hafez's tomb, sipping smoke from a hubble-bubble, a traditional Persian water pipe. The glances of the locals, curious but not disapproving, indicate that, despite occasional choking, I am not disgracing myself.

It is moments like these, really, that represent the soul of travel: times when one breaks away from the tourist circuit and finds an alcove of peace and contemplation. Time slows down, and the essence of an unfamiliar culture surrounds you without planning or artifice. These are the times when one can imagine spending weeks, or months, in a city like Shiraz -- meeting the living poets, and cultivating a real understanding of the people who call this their home.

The smoke bubbles pleasantly as I draw it through the pipe; there is a lovely cherry flavor to the tobacco (or maybe the water itself is perfumed). Nearby tables are filled with men and women reading newspapers, doing crosswords (in Farsi, a daunting feat) and chatting over tea and cake. It is a measure of Iran's sophistication that my laptop draws nary a glance.

In a few hours I will board an Iran Air jet -- a tired Soviet passenger plane, worn out from years of use by Aeroflot -- and journey north to Isfahan, and the rendezvous of the sun and moon.

ISFAHAN, Iran -- Aug. 10: During my travels in Iran I've been reading a book called "Samarkand," n historical novel by Lebanese journalist Amin Maalouf. Set in 11th century Persia, the book recounts the times of the great poet-philosopher Omar Khayyam, whose most tumultuous years began and ended in Isfahan.

Aside from drinking about half the wine available in the city, Omar of Nishipur -- who, despite his near heretical views, enjoyed royal patronage -- realized his dream of building an astronomical observatory; he was accomplished in the arts of astronomy as well as astrology. One of his goals was to measure accurately the length of the solar year. Not only did he succeed, but the system he developed came into use during his own lifetime -- on March 21, 1079. "This officially carried the name of the Sultan," writes Maalouf, "but in the street, and even in certain documents, it was enough to mention 'such and such a year in the era of Omar Khayyam.'" A modification of his calendar remains in use today.

Khayyam's legendary observatory no longer stands; it was destroyed by the invading Mongols, four centuries before Isfahan became the baseline of Persian civilization. It is astonishing to walk along the shaded streets, through the 4-kilometer-long bazaar, in the shadow of the magnificent 17th century Mosque of Emam, and realize that none of this (except for parts of the bazaar) existed during Khayyam's time.

(Speaking of the bazaar: During my morning stroll through the millennia-old labyrinth, I ran into a 16-year-old boy who cornered me as I bargained for the local version of a Dairy Queen cone. Like many young Iranians, he was keen to practice his English. His opening gambit was potentially awkward -- "Excuse me, please, but why does America think it is king of the whole world?" -- but we soon settled into a discussion about the charms of Isfahan. The definitive statement came after I suggested that Isfahan is more beautiful than Shiraz. The boy frowned. "Isfahan," he declared, "is more beautiful than Chicago.")

One thing the Persians of Omar's time had in common with present-day Iranians is a fascination with the heavens. Nine centuries after Khayyam performed his calculations for the Seljuk court, the city of Isfahan has gone eclipse-crazy. Eclipse banners line Chahar Bagh, the main boulevard; posters showing the fabulous blue dome of Emam Mosque surrounded by a solar corona hang in every window. At 10 this morning, with the event only 30 hours away, I wandered into a "madrase" -- an Islamic university, comparable to a yeshiva -- and was immediately surrounded by turbaned clerics who called to me excitedly, "Kusoof! Kusoof!"

It is an expression I've heard a great deal these days. The literal meaning, as clearly as I can tell, is "the union of the sun with the moon."

It's out there somewhere, our moon, moving inexorably toward its Wednesday rendezvous. Totality will occur at 4:40 p.m. This will be the first total solar eclipse to pass over Persia since the 1950s, long before the birth of more than two-thirds of the population. Eclipses are cyclical; they occur in the same places every 35 years or so (the next one to darken the U.S. will occur in 2017). But the fact that this is the last such event of the millennium has given this one special meaning, and tourists from around the world have converged on this ancient caravansary town to witness the spectacle. During the past week we've met groups from Japan, Italy, Spain, France and England, but we seem to be the only Americans. I did, however, hear a strange rumor -- I have no reason to believe it is untrue -- that this afternoon's flight from Tehran to Isfahan will carry a group that includes moon walker Neil Armstrong.

The dire predictions of comet watchers, asteroid phobics and dusty infidels like Nostradamus faze the locals not at all. The imams I spoke with have no qualms about the eclipse. They will, however, recite special prayers, "like when there is an earthquake." So one doesn't quite know what to expect.

I must admit, though, that the high-profile chorus of doomsayers back in the USA has been a bit tiresome. It is true that Nostradamus, who has often been off in his predictions by only a letter or two, predicted that a "King of Terror" will arrive from the skies just about teatime tomorrow. But the slightest error in interpretation could give his words a very different meaning. Both Yeats and Rilke, after all, equated terror with transcendent beauty. As my astrologer friend Rob Breszny prefers to think, this millennial eclipse may deliver a breakthrough in human consciousness. Reason enough, I reckon, to be smack in its path.

The weather, incidentally, is perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. The only question is exactly where to observe the eclipse from. Sanjay, the leader of our Geographic Expeditions group, seems partial to driving out of town, and setting up camp on the mesa of a nearby mountain. He has a point; it would be fantastic to see the shadow of the moon race across the landscape as a 100-second sunset occurs in every direction at once. For my money, though, it could be equally spectacular to watch the phenomenon darken the crowded plaza in front of the city's fantastic 17th century mosque.

In any case, the level of excitement is growing by the hour. Odd, how the sun and moon know nothing of this; to the players themselves, this is no more than the impassive dance of celestial mechanics.

Aug. 11: The longest period of totality in Iran would be 1 minute, 58 seconds, but the figure reduces dramatically as one moves even slightly away from the center line. Isfahan is a good 15 miles from that line, and totality here would run about 1 minute, 38 seconds. After paying a fortune and lugging their cameras and telescopes halfway around the world, many of the Geographic clients were understandably eager to drive toward the barren southwest, wringing as many seconds out of totality as possible.

I stayed behind in Isfahan, setting up camp in Imam Khomeini Square. Built in 1612, the vast plaza -- alive with fountains and lined by craft shops -- served as the center of Safavid dynasty Persia. As I stood by the fountain in front of the cream-colored dome of the "Women's Mosque," the high minarets of the Masjed-e-Imam gateway loomed to my left. High behind them, the impassive sun burned through the afternoon haze. A few fluffy clouds flirted nearby, providing an unneeded element of suspense.

At about 3:15 -- the moment of "first contact" between the sun and moon -- there was a murmur from the 200 or 300 people assembled in the shade of the mosque. Though crowded, Khomeini Square was not the crush I'd expected. I wondered if everyone really had fled, driving across the plains in pursuit of longer-lasting shadows.

The situation soon changed. By 4:15 -- 15 minutes before totality -- the plaza was filled with thousands of locals, the vast majority of them too young to recall the last eclipse here 45 years ago. Iranian television and radio had been vigilant -- there had been warnings and instructions every 10 minutes -- and no one was seen without a shadow box or mass-produced sun viewer. Some people had built ingenious contraptions for viewing the thinning sun. The simplest and most effective were small mirrors, which threw images of the crescent across the walls of the mosques and palaces. The crescent, let me remind you, is the emblem of Islam, and I doubt the symbolism was lost on this crowd.

(Iran TV's instructions, I learned, may have been a little too alarmist; many people actually hid inside their homes, convinced that even a glimpse of the phenomenon would blind them for life. The taxi driver who brought me to the cyber-cafe where I am writing this, for example, spent the eclipse in the shower.)

The atmosphere was charged and giddy. It was probably the closest Iran will come to Woodstock: T-shirts, overpriced soft drinks and all. There were a few pointed differences: Devout Muslims spread woven mats on the grass and prostrated themselves, reciting the appropriate prayers; a small, spontaneous and very short-lived anti-American demonstration erupted near the Ali Ghapu Palace.

The Women's Mosque is famous for changing color through the day. During the last five minutes of sun the dome hurried through a full day's work -- glowing first peach, then honey, then amber. As the world darkened, a terrified thrill swept through the plaza. Thirty seconds before totality a collective cry began to rise from the crowd, mounting to a fevered climax. I think I yelled myself as the last sliver of light winked out. The ground rippled with a weird diffraction pattern, and the sun disappeared behind the moon.

It was otherworldly, magnificent beyond compare. Venus burned near the zenith, and the cooperative clouds took on a wine-dark glow. The automatic lights crowning the minarets flickered on. A mane-like corona twisted wildly from the sun, while bright red prominences danced around its edges. I tried to view the effect with binoculars, but it was impossible; this was my first eclipse, and my hands were shaking uncontrollably.

There was a sudden, timeless silence. Then, from every direction, came the familiar Persian expression of delight, reverence and awe: "Ma'sha'Allah!" What wonders God has willed!

Never, I reflected, were words more truly spoken.

Ninety-eight seconds is not a long time. Before we knew it, Bailey's Beads shimmered around the occulted disk, and a wink of sunlight appeared at the moon's southeastern edge. Venus blinked out; in an instant, the plaza was flooded with light. I got the impression that people couldn't decide whether to cheer or moan. Our collective moment had ended; there was nothing to hold us from business as usual.

Yet we had shared something extraordinary, something that can hardly be described and could barely be believed. I filtered out of the plaza with thousands of Iranian men, women and children, shaking hands and slapping backs, feeling the sort of solidarity usually brought on by moon landings, Super Bowls or earthquakes.

Somehow, the news from Iran will never read quite the same to me again.

By Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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