Our family of four choose Iran to view the August 11, 1999 total eclipse of the sun. We went partly to see the eclipse, but also to visit Iran, which seems to be approaching détente with the USA after 20 years. Following the advice on Epsenak's NASA site, we planned to be in Isfahan, but by the time we obtained visas all the hotels were booked. We considered other sights, Bam looked attractive, but after four Italians were kidnapped by brigands we opted for the Zagros mountains in the region between Kermanshah and Hamadam. Just weeks before the eclipse in July 1999 violent demonstrations began at the University of Tehran after the government closed down reformist newspapers. Nervous about the political stability and animosity towards Americans we worked with Nasrin Harris of Persian Voyages and Caravan Sahra to hire a guide (Maryam, a 24 year old woman) and driver (Amir) for a 17 day trip to Iran. We arrived in Tehran on August 7 and after visiting for a few days drove to Hamadan.
The day before the eclipse our driver Amir and I spent the day driving along the path of totality searching for a good location to view the eclipse. We left Hamadan in the morning and drove south towards Borujerd via Malayer with the plan to return to Hamadan via Nahavan and Kangavar. Late in the day while driving on small roads in the ancient and arid Zagros mountains outside of Nehavan, we noticed a dirt road leading up to a cell phone tower located on top of a small hill. Our car barely managed to climb the steep road, but at the top of the hill we were greeted by a large fountain of water shooting skyward in the center of a cement basin. The abundance of freeing flowing water contrasted strongly with the arid surroundings. Around the fountain were several large watermelons being cooled in the fresh water and several young men and women were sitting around the water. After parking the car and walking towards the fountain we saw that we were situated high on a steep mountain directly overlooking the town of Nahavand, which was lying at our feet one hundred meters below us. Like every city we visited in Iran, the town was green with tree-lined avenues and parks. From our perch at the cell phone tower we had an unobstructed view 20 km to the northwest and 10 km to the southeast, which meant we would be able to see the shadow of the moon coming towards us on the day of totality. Near the fountain was a circular cement roofed structure with open walls and upon entering we found a dozen people adjusting telescopes and other astronomical looking instruments. I knew immediately that we had found the right place from which to observe the eclipse the following day. The Iranian young men and women were working putting filters on video and 35 mm cameras and onto several telescopes and binoculars. They welcomed us, and in good English explained they were a group of High School and University students from Tehran and Hamadan interested in astronomy.
One of the high school students was Ali Aghvami, who observed a previous eclipse of the sun in Iran in 1995 and at his young age had already ground a dozen mirrors! Ali is a student at Allame Helli High School, a prestigious exam school in Tehran. He showed me his impressive 6.5 inch reflector telescope pictured here with Ali adjusting the camera. The students were very gracious and were pleased that an American physics professor had come to their country to view the eclipse. They invited my family to return the next day and join them for the eclipse. However, driving is very dangereous in Iran, and Ali and his friends were in a serious car accident on their way home after the eclipse. Fortunately, they all survived.
We arrived at the cell phone tower site outside of Nahavand around 3 PM on August 11, 1999, about an hour before totality. About 100 - 200 people were at the cell phone tower site, but the spring on top of the mountain which had so impressed me the day before was now dry. Ali Aghvami and his friends had their equipment setup and were snapping pictures as first contact began. Our family is pictured here, my wife, and children Max (13) and Clara (7). We didn't see any other foreigners, but the description by Mike Simmons on this webpage sounds like we were together at the same location. Our only equipment were these filter glasses for viewing the partially occluded sun and a simple range finder camera for photographing the eclipse. We left the crowd with their telescopes and climbed up to the top of the hill as that gave the widest view of the valley around Nahavand. We saw below us on the outskirts of town a soccer stadium that was close enough to just discern that it was filled with a crowd of black robed people. There were some scattered clouds in the sky, but they were not very thick. As totality approached the air cooled and the wind died down. The light became eerie, fading in intensity like at sunset, but the angle of the shadows was wrong and the color of the light was very different, lacking in the customary reds of crepuscular light.
I had viewed one eclipse previously, in the rain shadow of Mt. Adams in Oregon in 1979. From the top of a hill I saw a wall of darkness rush towards us stretching across the horizon and reaching from earth to heaven. Behind the darkness stars were visible and it felt as if the roof of the sky was being peeled backward by an omnipotent hand. Although lasting only a few seconds, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. In Iran the moon's shadow was different. The air was hazy and the valley in the distance became white and indistinct after about 10 km. Looking west towards the oncoming lunar shadow I had the impression that this limit of obscurity was approaching us. Rather than a wall of darkness rushing towards us, it was the limit of visibility that was becoming smaller and smaller. The intensity of light rapidly dimensioned and in a few seconds the light went from quite bright to darkness. It felt as if we were on a movie set - like in the Thurman Show - and the lights were being rapidly turned out. A cry of astonishment and wonder was emitted by the viewers near us, and loud adulations could be heard from the soccer stadium below in Nahavand. A sprinkling of street lights turned on in town which struck us as somewhat humorous - it reminded me of all the stories of birds roosting during an eclipse, fooled into thinking because the sun had vanished it must be nightfall. Here people were responding in exactly the same way as the other animals on earth. One cloud sat in front of the sun, but it was thin enough to see the bright corona shining through. Venus was the only planet I observed, a bit higher and southward than the sun. The picture at the left is one Ali Aghvami sent me, taken on his telescope pictured above.
In too short a time we looked west to see the unusual sight of the sky brightening in the direction normally reserved for sunsets, shown here with the lights of Nahavand in the foreground. My children were very impressed and greatly enjoyed the spectacle. After exchanging addresses with the physics and astronomy students it was time to take our leave for two more weeks of traveling in Iran.
Our experiences with the people and country of Iran parallel the other accounts described on this website. Contrary to the portrayal by the press in the USA of Iranians as terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, we found the Iranians to be pro-American and moderate in their religious beliefs. Furthermore, we found the Iranians to be an extremely hospitable and civilized people. On our way to Kermanshah after leaving Nehavan we stopped alongside the road in some agricultural fields to have a picnic. The peasants whose land we were on came over and welcomed us. The women escorted our women to their bathroom inside their home and they told us "that they didn't have anything to give us, but the walnuts and apples on the trees we were sitting beneath, and we were welcome to as much as those as we could eat". The matron of the little hamlet joined us, and soon her daughters came with plates of cheese and figs for us to eat. One of the daughters was attending studying English at a high school 90 mins away and stayed there during the week. The mother told us that her other six children had all completed college. We spent the afternoon with them and when we were preparing to leave, they asked us to spend the night - "we will kill a lamb for you" they offered.
On another occasion in Shiraz my son and I and our guide were sitting in the shade of the mosque of the brother of Iman Reza when we were surrounded by a group of ten boys curious to know where we were from. Upon learning we were American they told us the score of the last World Cup Soccer match between our countries (Iran 2, USA 1) and asked my son if he would join them in play. I wasn't eager to have my son go off alone with a bunch of unknown kids, but they were friendly and persistent. One of the boys realized that we wouldn't let my son go by himself, so he went quickly home and upon returning informed us that his parents invited us all to tea. Accepting the invitation, we arrived at their home on unpaved, narrow winding streets located just behind the most important mosque of Shiraz. The family was celebrating a marriage that same evening, but they took several hours out of their day of preparation to warmly welcome us. They played the tabla and sang and danced for us. The songs were sung as a duet, with one woman taking the part of the bride and describing the good qualities that she would bring to the marriage, while a man sung the part of the groom. The song was improvised and composed in humorous rhyme including puns about the beauty and wealth of the couple.
These two examples are illustrative of the warm welcome we received from many Iranians on our trip and we can say that we have never been so hospitably treated anywhere else in the world. In many ways having young children with us was an asset. Adult tourists from Europe are common, from US less so, but for many Iranians we were the first US family with young children that they had seen in 20 years. I think they viewed as a sign that relations between Iran and USA were returning to normalcy, something everyone we met deeply desired.
The other surprise that I experienced was the degree of civilization of the Iranians. In Hamadan we visited a memorial to Avicenna, a famous 10th C. physician and scientist, and I was surprised to see how crowded it was with Iranians, for scientists are not so revered in the western world. We also quickly saw that poetry is an integral part of their culture. In Hamadan we also visited the tomb of Baba Tahar, an 11th C. poet and grandson of Omar Khayyam known for his verses extolling one to enjoy life. The tomb was in a pleasant garden and many Iranians were visiting it. Inside was a young boy, about 10 years old, singing verses and an older man playing a vertical flute. The walls of the mausoleum were made from translucent marble and the light of the bright son shone through. The sound of the flute and voice of the boy echoed off the walls and the sound was extraordinarily beautiful. In other cities we visited other mausoleums and monuments to poets of 1,000 years ago. This photo shows the mausoleum of Ha'fez, one of the best known poets within Iran. We meet many people who had memorized hundreds of lines of his poems. One sight we saw several times was a man or boy with a parakeet. For 1000 rials (~10É ), the parakeet would walk over a box of cards with poems written on them and with its beak pull one out. The poem, written by one of the popular masters of the 12th C. such as Rumi, Sa'di, or Ferdosi, would be then interpreted as a fortune. Many of these poets were Sufi, an Islamic sect that emphasizes the mystical and spiritual, and focuses on the individual in his search for God in contrast to the organized, hierarchical Islam of the Shia faith.
The Iranians have a deep sense of their history and their Persian identity. They know their history and culture well and are proud of it. Persians were responsible for the Islamic renaissance of the 10th C, a period when Europe was in the dark ages and they developed medicine, architecture, poetry, music, and mathematics. They are also proud of the pre-Islamic past 2500 years ago when Cyrus the Great ruled the world. The religion at that time was Zoroastrianism and parts of this religion are still part of Iranian culture. They do not use the Arabic lunar calendar, but rather the Zorastrian solar one. The most important holiday of the year is No Ruz, the new year and is a Zorastrian, not Islamic holiday. From weddings, which utilize symbols from Zorastrian times to Sufi poems of 1000 years ago that are memorized by everyone that we met, we received the strong impression that the Persian culture is one that has existed uninterrupted for 2500 years in Iran. The Persians have survived many invasions over the past 2500 years, but have managed to preserve their rich culture.
Iran is a country with tremendous beauty, great natural resources, and a people of culture and civilization. It has great potential, but economically they are crumbling under US sanctions. The Iranians are weary of the international isolation they have experienced for the past 20 years and are yearning to be integrated back into the global community. Everyone we met expressed the desire that the Iranian government would continue to evolve along the path of reform and that the governments of USA and Iran would once again be friends. Our trip was a wonderful experience for our family and our hopes go to the Iranian people as their country struggles with political and social reform.
References - books and websites about Iran that I have enjoyed:
Nine parts of desire: The hidden world of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks, Doubleday, New York, 1994.
The Iranians : Persia, Islam, and the soul of a nation, Sandra Mackey, New York : Dutton, 1996.
Daughter of Persia, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, Doubleday, New York, 1992.
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: The 1st and 4th editions in English verse by Edward FitzGerald; with illustrations by Eugene Karlin; intro. by T. Cuyler Young, New York : Crowell, 1964.
NASA site about solar eclipses.
Solar eclipse stories Stories from observers of solar eclipses.
Persian Poetry Mostly poems in Farsi.
Seth Fraden, October 1999.