The Eclipse: Hungary - World shares a strange ceremony of science, superstition and awe

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The Independent Online
MILLIONS OF eclipse-watchers flocked to Hungary's Lake Balaton to see the total solar eclipse over this inland sea, the largest lake in central Europe, its 600 square kilometres of tranquil waters packed with every kind of craft.

The eclipse began at 11.47pm local time on the lake's north shore, and lasted for 2min 22secbefore moving on to Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Middle East and the Indian sub- continent.

The leafy, tree-lined promenades of the lakeside Habsburg-era resorts, where a century ago the Austrian-Hungarian haute bourgeoisie strolled, were solid with watchers, peering through square-shaped eclipse viewers. Entranced by the gradual blotting out of the Sun, they stood dumb and awestruck as the heavens darkened.

Watching the eclipse-watchers peer heavenwards was like witnessing some strange ceremony of mass worship, as though centuries of organised religion, dogma, priests, churches and ideology had all fallen away, leaving only a primal connection, bare and atavistic, between humanity and the force that moves the Earth through the universe.

While the Sun was gradually blotted out, the sky slowly darkened, and then, at the moment of the full eclipse, what was left of the light assumed a strange, unsettling quality.

It was as though dawn and dusk had suddenly occurred simultaneously, bringing in their wake an odd-half light, soft and translucent.

Stars twinkled in a pastel blue sky, while jagged clouds over the lake were shot through with orange and vermilion. Silence fell over the waters.

At the moment of total eclipse, the Moon was a black disc hovering over the Sun.

The Sun was reduced to an angry flaming ring, shooting defiant flames from its surface that flickered around the Moon's outline. Some Hungarians argued that it was the country's roots in shamanism, which reveres forces of nature, that triggered such interest in the eclipse in the Magyar psyche.

The total eclipse lasted longest at the Romanian city of Ramnicu Valcea, about 100 miles north of Bucharest. At 2min 23sec it beat the Balaton resorts by a second or two.

A few miles away, in the Govora monastery, run by Romanian Orthodox nuns, the sisters dismissed the popular belief that the eclipse is a portent of doom.

"There is no use in worrying," said Mother Hurvima. "We are not interested in the eclipse. The end of the world will come when it comes."

But others see the darkening across the former Soviet bloc as a sign that the end of its days is at hand.

It was the Soviet empire that inspired the Hungarian-born British author Arthur Koestler to write Darkness at Noon. That work, probably the finest novel to be written about the belief in Communism, referred to an ideological, rather than celestial, darkening of the heavens.

For some, events such as eclipses and a new millennium are a sign of a coming apocalypse.

In nearby Bulgaria, still- believing Communists say the eclipse signifies at last the end of capitalist days, when, finally, the proletariat will march on towards the new socialist dawn.

"The world will be covered with darkness and then the Sun will rise again to bring back to life the idea of Communism, the most humane system," said the Bulgarian Communist Party leader, Viktor Spasov.

"Misery, poverty and exploitation will be buried, the working class will rise to strike back against cruel capitalism," said Mr Spasov, who was an anti-fascist guerrilla in the Second World War.

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