The Total Eclipse of the Sun

An account by Aymen Ibrahem (PSC, Senior Astronomy Specialist)

On 11 August 1999, a total eclipse of the Sun was visible in Asia and Europe and its accompanying partial solar eclipse was also visible in all Europe, most of Asia, Africa and North America. This eclipse was partial in Egypt, but it truly caught people's attention. The Moon blocked about 70% of the Sun's apparent diameter in Cairo at greatest eclipse stage.

This eclipse received much global attention and was observed widely by numerous people and recorded by thousands of amateur and professional astronomers, as it was the last total solar eclipse in the twentieth century.

Due to an announcement made by Helwan Observatory, the eclipse attracted Egyptian people greatly. Numerous people visited the public observatory, I was then working with, to view the eclipse through the observatory's telescopes.

The media released live reports at the beginning and at the end of the eclipse. There were also programs providing information about solar eclipses and precautions for safe eclipse viewing.

The "eclipse prayer" was performed at mosques throughout Egypt during the eclipse. This is one of the traditions of Prophet Mohamed (may Allah's Prayers and Peace be upon Him) that Muslims perform during eclipses of the Sun and the Moon.

Fig (1)

11 August 1999 total solar eclipse

The eclipse was also the second solar eclipse I observe photographically; my first experience of photographing solar eclipses was with the partial-only solar eclipse of 12 October 1996.

I sought to photograph the 11 August solar eclipse at the Plateau of Giza, the plateau of the mighty Pyramids of Egypt, and the world's most celebrated archaeological area. I hoped to record the sequence of eclipse stages and to picture the partially eclipsed Sun back-dropping the Pyramids! Earlier I achieved huge success when I photographed the spectacular comet Hale-Bopp above the Pyramid of King Khafre in April 1997. Two of the photos were published in major international astronomy magazines and websites!

On the eclipse day, I arrived at Giza about an hour before the first contact. I had my camera, telephoto lenses and solar filters. The eclipse began a few minutes after local noon; I was standing near the Pyramid of King Menkaure, the smallest of the three edifices. I immediately started taking a series of photos with my 200 mm telephoto (protected with a solar filter) as the Moon started to creep into view. 

I was taking an image about every 5 minutes, and making intermittent visual observations through a solar filter. In each observation I glanced at the Sun for less than 5 seconds, then gave my eyes a brake by looking away from the Sun. About an hour after the first contact, I changed my location to stand on the flanks of the artificial mountain of King Khafre. I took a series of photos of the eclipsed Sun above the tip of the massive Pyramid of King Khafre using a filter I specially designed for that purpose.

There were a few tourists at Giza on that day; some performed solar cults during the eclipse. The streets of Cairo and Giza were almost empty, and from the plateau, I was able to listen to the prayers performed in the mosques of the two cities.

Fortunately, my efforts were rewarding and the photos were very satisfactory. One of the photos appeared at an exhibition in Britain in late October 1999. It was a memorable, wealthy experience: I enjoyed beholding the magnificent monuments of Giza and the historic cosmic alignment. I was reminded of the astronomical observations the priests of ancient Egypt were examining in the ancient temples.