A Birthday Eclipse
Wednesday, 11 August 1999

Batman, Turkey
37° 54' 57"N - 41° 08' 31"E

Totality: 2m 07s

Early on Tuesday morning, August 17, 1999, a terrible earthquake devastated NW Turkey. Our tour group's plane was wheels-up leaving the country from Istanbul exactly 15 hours and 5 minutes before the quake hit. I think I can speak for the entire group in saying that we are shocked, hurt, and personally deeply affected by this terrible tragedy that has taken so many thousands of the lives of good people we came to understand better for just having been among them, even for such a short time. God help them all, and God help the Republic of Turkey.

Other info for the 11 August eclipse from Batman, Turkey

I also took some regular, travel-type pictures that are here on my travel page.

Here it is! My digital composite of 19 eclipse images, further processed until I'm sick of looking at it. Actually, there are some more things to do to it, but I wanted to get this up ASAP. What do you think?

Another version that I like better

single 300mm image of full totality; note the wonderfully symmetric "flower" corona we saw!

Inner corona, 1250mm

Sequence showing the advance of the moon; exposures spaced every couple of seconds

I knew about this eclipse before I even knew much about eclipses in general. When I was very young, I would read in my astronomy books and magazines of all the eclipses that would happen in my lifetime, and in every list I saw, this one always stuck out at me. I guess that was because this eclipse would happen on my birthday, and, even though the ripe old age of 36 seemed centuries away at that time, I kind of thought that maybe by then, it wouldn't be too much of a problem for me to go see it, even if it was going to be "all the way over there" in (gasp) Europe. I really expected I would go see this one; it would be a kind of birthday present to myself, and, you never know - I just might like it! Little did I know then that by the time 1999 came around, I would be totally and completely hooked, and the concept of missing a total eclipse on my birthday would be as unimaginable as not even having a birthday at all!

Having an eclipse on your birthday wouldn't seem to be all that rare; after all, every time there's an eclipse, fully 11 million people worldwide are celebrating their special day! But, taken in context, it is kind of a special thing. Consider my birthday, for example -- August 11. There have been eclipses on that day, to be sure, in 1542, say. And there will be more, like in 2390. But 1523 wasn't a totally total eclipse. Well, it kind of was, but there's not really a technical term to describe the kind of total eclipse this one was. Specifically, in this eclipse, there wasn't a Northern limit to the eclipse path on the ground -- the central axis of the moon's shadow made it to earth, but the northern edge of the umbra's cone never touched the earth. Boo! And in 1627, we had a hybrid eclipse -- a so-called "annular-total" eclipse where totality at the center of the path was of extremely short duration (like the ones in 1984 and 1986). Since no one who might have seen that one is still alive, we're not even really sure just how "total" it ever got to be. 2018 and 2333 will be partials, not hardly worth considering, and the one in 2352 will be annular (like 1994). No, none of these really count if we're only going to consider true, central, total eclipses (though purists will argue that 1523 should count; we'll ignore them).

If we want true, totally total, central solar eclipses that happened on my birthday, we have to go all the way back to the year 1124 to find one! That one was visible in Novgorod, Russia, though I'm not quite sure what that part of the world called itself back then. And, going forward, it's not until 2371 that humans will once again get to stand in the shadow on that most special of days! That's a long time to wait between eclipses, and, since I don't plan to be alive for the next one, this one happening during my lifetime obviously wasn't going to be one I felt I could miss. (Though, I will tell you that my dad, who, even after Aruba 1998, isn't at all convinced that this eclipse thing is really all that much to get excited about, has had no fewer than three eclipses on his birthday within his lifetime. Lucky stiff.)

Of course, I had always thought I would see my birthday eclipse in Germany, and, as I began to think about finalizing my plans, Germany still seemed like a no-brainer. But the more I read, and the more I checked into long-range weather predictions, and the more I looked into the tours being offered, I realized that if I went to Germany, I would most likely miss the eclipse I had looked forward to so much! A 50% chance of clear skies just wouldn't be good enough.

So, where to see it, then? England? France? Luxembourg? Romania? Turkey? Iraq? Weather prospects for parts of Europe lying to the west of Germany were even worse than those in Germany, so that option was out. I really had no desire to go to Romania or Turkey, but the more I looked, the more inviting they seemed. I could get to Romania just as inexpensively as anywhere else, and it did have the advantage that I wouldn't even have to leave the city of Bucharest -- the eclipse would come right over the rooftops of that great capital city! But all the tour groups seemed to be heading for Turkey. Was there something going on there that I hadn't thought of?

Turkey is a great country, full of history, rich in culture, with very strong and proud people inhabiting a region of the world that's seen things to make most of us turn tail and run home to the safety of our living rooms. Most of the population is Muslim, and there are militant factions in certain regions of the country who want what everyone else wants - autonomy and respect for their beliefs and their way of life. One of the tour groups I read about was planning to see the eclipse in the heart of one of these troubled regions in the Southeast, near a city called Batman (pronounced Baht-MAHN). With the promise of seeing all that history, in a town with a name like that, in a remote part of the world, with State Department cautions about travel in the area -- well, where else would be a better place to see an eclipse? (You know me.)

I started planning immediately after Aruba. The effort I'd put into that one left me a little behind when I started looking at 1999 - there would only be a little over 17 months to get ready! I had to learn how to say some basic phrases in that God-awfully-difficult-but-amazingly-beautiful language of Turkish. I wasn't going to make the same mistake I'd made in India!

Because this was the first eclipse to cross Europe in quite a few years, the excitement generated there was amazing. French and German web sites gave details on the technical details and potential visibility from their countries (though the mobilization of support for viewing from these two countries was a little disappointing), and universities in Austria, Romania and Turkey had begun advertising their facilities to fellow scientists and amateurs alike beginning back in 1997.

England, however, stole the show. In early 1998, I began seeing web articles on how the English authorities were beginning to express concern over the number of visitors the southwestern part of that country would be likely to have. The stories gradually heightened in panic level (by normal, stoic British standards) to the point where a cynical person might start thinking that maybe these authorities were using scare tactics to try and keep people away. Visions of huge traffic jams, beautiful countryside completely trashed by unruly mobs of unwanted foreigners (leave your money; thank you, now get out), no hotel rooms available for weeks in the entire southern half of England, life-threateningly critical food and gas shortages, as well as woefully inadequate port-a-potty supplies, brought a feeling of unrelenting doom to anyone unlucky enough to have decided to visit England for the event. This feeling of dread, of course, could only have been overshadowed (pun intended) for someone on eclipse day by the unlikelihood of their actually getting to see the eclipse because of clouds!

This mania amused me, since because of the weather prospects, I had long ago decided not to even consider England. It was a mixed blessing that the eclipse path wouldn't be going over Stonehenge, because, even though the ethereal effect of an eclipse in a place like that would have been irresistable, who knows what havoc could have been wrought on such a historical treasure by millions of crazed eclipse fanatics? Still, the things I was hearing that were supposedly quotes from the British about how England was the "best" location from which to view the eclipse, well, these were the most amusing. If it really were, that's where I'd have been going!

The absolute last straw in all this, the final thing I heard that caused me to completely ignore everything else having to do with the "British Eclipse" that came out of my radio, was in November of 1998. I heard that British authorities had actually advised women not to get pregnant in November or December, because of the likelihood that they would go into labor around eclipse time, and not be able to get to the hospitals because of the traffic jams. No offense to the British -- they have a lovely country, and I certainly would enjoy visiting and seeing all the wonderful things they have that they can rightly be proud of. But everyone in the world was not going there to see the eclipse, the British did not own all rights to it in Europe or anywhere else, and to think that enough people would be there that non-navigable traffic jams would be the result, when surely the situation in London is much worse for hapless pregnant women whose babies decide to enter the world at 5:00pm on any given Friday....

Give me a break.

Anyway, I learned my few necessary phrases in Turkish, got my camera setup prepared, paid for everything months in advance, and got ready to jump enthusiastically right into that hotbed of PKK activity. I even had a T-shirt printed up that said something in Turkish to the effect that today was my birthday, and gave thanks to Turkey for giving me such a wonderful present. Pegged out the tourist-nerd meter, I'm sure, but what the heck? Anyone who goes halfway around the world to see an eclipse can't always be assured that they'll be viewed in the most favorable light anyway. Might as well embrace our fate....

Anyway, the eclipse was wonderful, though the trip itself had some definite "never again"s. I'll start with the bad, and work up to the good.

First of all, I will never, never again take a 10-day tour to a third-world country. Eclipse or no eclipse, that's just too long to be away from home, eating the same food day after day, on the bus off the bus on the bus off the bus here's another 7th century church restroom break in two hours did you bring TP from the hotel watermelon AGAIN buy post cards can't mail no stamps what do you mean you don't take American Express I wanna go home Immodium Immodium Immodium.

(* Eclipse *)

Only a six hour drive now this is a highlight of the trip inflation this river that mosque those mountains high taxes schools worthless money GQ policemen change money watermelon with eggplant this time threw up the Immodium I wanna go the F*** home! Now, please.

10 days is too long.

Turkish Airlines is great, with wonderful new planes and (kind of) friendly staff. Their philosophy is the same as I've seen in every other "ahorita" culture, though - if we take off....today...., then, well, we take off. We'll get there, sometime. The real challenge was sitting on the plane for 11 hours at a time. It was exciting going there, but the way home just seemed like forever. And to top it off, when we got home, the treatment I got from Delta was unbelievably bad. If I ever calm down enough from the experience, I'll write something about it. Suffice it to say that I was right, and the policemen agreed with me completely, thank you very much. (even got some free tickets out of it from Delta...)

And, in Turkey, I have to say, the tour I was on had tried to pack about a month's worth of stuff into ten days. Everything was nice, but it was just too much. And to their credit, they did the best they could with the situation they had. Beginning right after the eclipse, I only did about half the scheduled stuff, and spent the rest of the time around the pool or in bed. That was the only thing that saved me, I think. Eating too much (like I normally do at home) was not an option. The food wasn't bad at all, it's just that eating the same thing for days on end was too much. One lunch at a particularly nice hotel, we were served spaghetti, and I thought everyone at the table was going to have an orgasm. Something different - oh my God!

Others on the trip didn't do so well. Quite a few people got pretty sick, and missed things they hadn't planned on missing out of necessity. One couple had a very important piece of luggage lost by the airline, and one man (from Indiana, like me!) had his pocket picked the first day in Istanbul. Credit cards only, but that messed up his trip. If he didn't pay cash for something, he didn't get it!

To be fair, though, when you have a group of 70 people, stuff like that is going to happen. Statistically, I guess, we're very lucky to be able to report that more such incidents didn't happen. But you can rationalize anything!

My (somewhat haphazard) eclipse setup in the desert out side Batman

Another fun thing that happened to me was just after the eclipse. We had endured temperatures of 49° [120°F] in the shade (though during totality, it did mercifully get down to 36° [98°F]!), and I was more than just a little bit suffering from the heat. But, our group was using two buses, and the buses were going to different hotels. I had just switched buses the previous evening, and so my luggage had mistakenly been loaded on the wrong bus. I was running back and forth between the two buses to try to make sure my clothes would be joining me that evening, and the stairs on the bus were a little steep. Normally, no problem, but I hit one of the stairs the wrong way, the carpet came out from underneath me, and I landed on my elbow. Actually, my funny bone. Hard. It hurt. By that evening, it had bruised up nicely, but I was pretty sure it wasn't broken. The next day, though, it hurt like hell. I never went to a doctor for it (what would they do?), and today, as I write this, a month later, it still hurts to press on it. Oh well. Just another battle scar. (Follow-up note: it stopped hurting about six months after the eclipse.)

And, thank GOD the tour company had thought to have someone along who was a nurse. I sort of overdid the activity just before the eclipse, running to set everything up and all, and I got severely heated up. I didn't even hardly realize it at the time, but I was acting very dazed and confused, like you'd expect from anyone whose brain was cooking inside their head. If it hadn't been for the nurse (I don't even remember her name) forcing me to slow down once in a while and having her pour water over me from the 5-gallon bottle I'd bought in town that morning, well, I'd have spent fourth contact checking out the hospital situation in Batman!

So, that's most of the bad. The good was the eclipse. It was wonderful. That story is coming up.

First, though, I've said so much about the bad that I should mention some of the pretty cool things that came out of this excursion for me. (Besides the eclipse, that is!)

I guess the first thing to say is that the people were so friendly. Unfortunately, Turkey gets a bad rep because of all the problems in the Southeast. The political situation is not great, and there are a lot of very bad feelings on both sides. But, as with so many other things in life, the reality is never the same as the hype, and we were treated very well. Lots of police, and they seemed very intent on making sure we were well proteced. I just couldn't figure out what from.... I remember very well, sitting in the hotel's café, talking to one of the guys working there. I say talking, but this was one of the more interesting conversations I've ever had. His English and my Turkish sucked pretty much equally, and so our "conversation" consisted of one word at a time (looked up in a dictionary which we passed back and forth between us!) and a lot of hand signals. No subtle shades of meaning allowed! It was very cool - one of those life-experiences you take with you forever, and can share with no one.

But the coolest conversation I had went like this: Every place we went in Kappadokia (Turkish spelling) had these little tourist stands where they sell stuff that you just cannot resist buying. (It's a tourist thing, sort of like the "oh well, I didn't come on this vacation to SAVE money, now did I?" mentality.) Anyway, they had this cute little stuffed camel that I didn't know whether my wife would want me to get for her mom. So I didn't. Of course, if you're married, you know that was the wrong thing to do. Well, actually, the really wrong thing to do was to mention it to my wife when I called her later. She informed me that I shouldn't even bother getting on the plane to come home if I didn't go out right now and get that little camel! Oh boy. I dutifully got dressed and thought about how surely I could just walk into town and pick one up. This was the tourist mecca of Ürgüp, Turkey, right? You'd think cute little stuffed camels would be everywhere.

You'd be wrong.

First of all, I had a one-hour window in which to do this deed. Our bus was going to be leaving for dinner that night, and I didn't want to miss it. Next, it was almost a mile into town. It hadn't looked that far as we were driving from it to the hotel, but there it was. All I could think about was how steep that big hill I was now going down was going to be on the way back.

So, I got into town, and there were some little touristy shops - but no camels. Great. I kept walking, and I eventually got to this place called the "Berliner". Cool name, cuz I speak German! Turned out the guy inside didn't speak much English, but he sure could speak German. So, I told him my troubles (even though I'd forgotten how to say "camel" in German, and it wasn't in any of the Turkish phrase books I'd brought with me). He left his shop and walked with me up and down the street, asking every shopkeeper in sight whether they had one of these camels. No luck anywhere, and I was running out of time to walk back. Finally, he apologized and gave up, but not before he pointed out a cab driver who also spoke German but no English. This gave me an idea.

I had the driver take me out to the tourist place where I had seen the camels earlier in the day. It was almost dark, though, and everybody was packing up to leave. No one spoke any more English than it took to convince tourists to buy things, so I had a problem. You have to picture this, because it was what I thought was the crowning National Geographic Moment of my entire trip. I'm standing at the Three Fairy Chimney natural formation Tourist Money Vacuum Area just outside Ürgüp, Turkey, speaking German to a cab driver who's translating between German and Turkish for me, talking to these roadside tourist-kitsch salespeople, trying to get one of them to go out when they get back to their home, find me one of these camels (Which color do you want? Would "echte Farbe" ["real camel color"] do? Yes, yes, fine, great, thank you, that would do nicely!), and bring it back to my hotel before we rolled out at 8:00am the next morning. What kind of odds do you want to give me on that situation ever having been covered by Fodor or Berlitz?

Anyway, I didn't get the camel the next morning. I got it that night, less than an hour after the cab driver had gotten me back to the hotel! When I got back from our dinner and belly-dancing show, I was not too drunk to remember to pick it up from the front desk, who had held it for me.

Big tips all around, and the day was saved. My mother-in-law loved her camel. (A side note to all this: My mother-in-law - not the yucky mother-in-law everyone alsways talks about, but a really nice, really cool mother-in-law who raised a daughter good enough for me to have wanted to marry and have kids with - was dying of cancer at that time, and that made it all the more special that I could bring her back something from my trip. She died 13 months after I gave this camel to her. Cancer sucks.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

But, speaking of being drunk, the tour company had set up a local show for us that included belly-dancing and all the food and booze we could consume. That was great, except that I overdid it quite a bit too much. I have the videotape to prove it, and it's embarrassing! I do remember attempting to play the band's clarinet player's instrument (and failing miserably), and absolutely refusing to belly-dance with the ladies when they found out it was my birthday. I remember going outside to smoke, thinking that I might get sick, and I remember them all bringing me out into the middle of the dance floor, announcing that I'd celebrated my birthday and giving me a lovely hand-painted plate that a lot of people had sprung for. And, I remember not throwing away the bag that that plate had come in, just in case...

I very distinctly remember throwing up into it on the bus during the ride back to the hotel, and being grateful I hadn't been too drunk to plan so well.

The eclipse shadow at 1140 UT, as photgraphed by METEOSAT. The shadow is over
eastern Turkey at the far right, and is about a minute away from going right over me!
You can see the clouds over Europe - Boo!

Click on the above image to see the full animated version.

Picture of the moon's shadow on the earth, taken by the crew aboard the Mir Space Station.
This is one of the last photographs taken from Mir before it was "de-orbited" (burnt up in the atmosphere).

Here is a story of eclipse martyrdom that would be tough to beat! Is there such a thing as eclipse sainthood for this lady?

British newspapers - because of the weather,
this was the
only place to see the eclipse there!

A great example to follow


An Indian sunset