It is an event that has the potential to stop wars and intensify prayers - as well as suspend reason, it seems in some cases - and feed centuries-old myths of doom and sacrifice.
From Europe to the Bay of Bengal, the eclipse of the sun Aug. 11 has created a mania far greater than the simple lining up of the moon between the earth and the sun. As the last full eclipse before 2000, it could be a small-scale dress rehearsal of behavior during the turn of the millennium.
Across the Middle East, clerics have sought to define the phenomenon in religious terms. In Europe, focus has been on expected monumental traffic jams, the predicted destruction of Paris, and appeasing "evil spirits" long associated with spectacular celestial events.
In Jordan's mosques, an "eclipse prayer" will be performed. "The eclipse ... is considered to be a universal phenomenon that as sures us of God's abilities and greatness," declared Jordan's minister for Islamic affairs, Abdul Salam Abbadi.
On the secular side, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority have declared national holidays to reinforce the importance of the event. And there are campaigns to prevent people from harming their eyes by staring at the sun.
"There have been all kinds of official warnings, but people here just don't listen unless there is a public holiday," says one Jordanian optician in Amman, whose supply of "eclipse viewer" cardboard glasses with thick foil-like lenses was quickly running out. Jordanian papers ran advertisements for the glasses that read: "Be ready for the great day! (Or wait another lifetime)."
Iraq took advantage of the eclipse to ask the United Nations to suspend for a day the US-enforced "no-fly zone" in northern Iraq - which along with a similar zone in the south has been the scene of thousands of allied monitoring flights and more than 100 American airstrikes since December. If the no-fly zone were suspended, private aircraft would be able to fly there to watch the eclipse.
In Iran, where the eclipse will be total across 12 provinces, officials have issued 600,000 sets of eclipse-safe glasses. Iran's Organization of Islamic Propaganda announced on Tehran Radio that prayer during the eclipse was "obligatory for all Muslims." Such phenomena in the Shiite faith is usually accompanied by a prayer called "The Horror."
"A long time ago, people believed that an eclipse showed that God was punishing us," says one Iranian mother in Tehran, who will be taking a $15 trip on a tourist bus to the city of Isfahan, in central Iran, where viewing will be best. "People used to say that if a pregnant woman watched the eclipse, the baby would have a spot. Of course, no one believes that now, but people are very excited, and I want to be there to feel the mood."
Some 20,000 researchers and tourists are believed to be converging on Iran for the event, and Iranian papers quoted officials as saying that American Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon 30 years ago, might travel to Iran to see the eclipse.
SCIENTISTS say that the places where the moon's shadow is deepest will experience a sudden cooling of temperatures, gusty winds, and near-total darkness. Nocturnal animals will be tricked into coming out, while daytime animals may retire or react with alarm.
Though the earth is just 1/400th the size of the sun, the fact that the sun is 390 times as far away as the moon means that the lunar body almost exactly covers the sun's disk during an eclipse. It creates a fiery halo - and extraordinary mythos.
The first record of an eclipse was made in ancient Babylon, today's Iraq, more than 40 centuries ago. Since then, many cultures considered eclipses to be mysterious harbingers of doom, as the sun was seen to be taken from them. The word eclipse, in fact, comes from the Greek word for "abandonment."
"We're talking about a very rare event that in the ancient past caused a great deal of awe and wonder," says Donald Laming, with the department of experimental psychology at Cambridge University in England. "If you think back to primitive man who didn't understand what was going on: wow."
These days little mystery remains, but it has been replaced by something else. "As you increase the publicity and the hype, so more and more people want to see it," he says. "People go crazy because they hear so much about it."
In Europe, eclipse craziness has been especially pronounced in Britain, where newspapers have little else to report. "Eclipse traffic" road signs went up weeks ago for the expected infusion of 1 million people to the southwest coast.
Police have boosted their ranks, especially around sites like Stonehenge that have long held supernatural mystique. Local British women were apparently urged nine months ago not to get pregnant, or to risk getting stuck in eclipse traffic jams during the rush to the birthing hospital.
France has been abuzz with the prediction by fashion designer Paco Rabanne, based on his reading of the 16th-century French astrologer Nostradamus, that the Russian space station Mir will drop out of its orbit and destroy Paris.
But in the Holy Land - where millennium celebrations are expected to be as chaotic as they are varied - some view the eclipse as a chance for personal growth. Some Jordanians plan to visit Mt. Nebo, the hilltop overlooking the Jordan River Valley and Dead Sea that is reputed to be where the Biblical Moses died.
"That is a spiritual high-energy spot, and the eclipse may bring even more energy," says one Jordanian. "Some people want to go, to be one with the oneness."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society