SIDE, Turkey (AP) – Thousands of skygazers gathered in an ancient temple of Apollo and let out cheers Wednesday as a total solar eclipse turned day into twilight, casting an eerie blue glow across the sky and the Mediterranean Sea.

NASA astronomers handed out protective glasses to hundreds of Turkish children before the eclipse cut a dark swath across the sky – a band that stretched from Brazil, across West Africa, Turkey and Central Asia, then disappeared at sunset in Mongolia.

The last total solar eclipse was in November 2003, but that was best viewed from sparsely populated Antarctica. Wednesday’s eclipse blocked the sun in highly populated areas.

Total eclipses require the tilted orbits of the sun, moon and Earth to line up exactly so that the moon obscures the sun completely. The next total eclipse will occur in 2008.

In Ghana, automatic street lamps switched on as the light faded, and authorities sounded emergency whistles in celebration. Schoolchildren and others across the capital, Accra, burst into applause.

Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq were summoned to mosques during the eclipse for a special prayer reserved for times of fear and natural disasters.

In the Turkish resort of Side, a crowd of some 10,000 began cheering and whistling as the moon took its first bite out of the sun. When the moon masked the sun and Venus suddenly appeared in the blue glow of the darkened sky, another loud cheer went up.

“It’s one of those experiences that makes you feel like you’re part of the larger universe,” said NASA astronomer Janet Luhmann who witnessed the eclipse from the ruins of an ancient Roman theater just a few hundred feet from the temple of Apollo.

It was “spiritual and emotional,” said Brian Faltinson of Victoria, British Columbia, who was watching his second eclipse. “It just about made me cry.”

As the moon covered the sun, the temperature dropped quickly and some skygazers put on sweaters. The sun blackened and a fiery rim surrounded it; the sky turned an eerie dark blue while a bright sunset red could be seen on the horizon.

There was a festive atmosphere in Side, with people gathered on the fallen stones and collapsed columns of the temple dedicated to Apollo – god of the sun – or on rocks at a beach about 40 feet away.

A string quintet played classical music at the foot of the temple’s five standing pillars and a Turkish brewery distributed free beer. Vendors hawked eclipse T-shirts and at one point, the stargazers began waving to a nearby cruise ship.

“It was a special ambiance,” said astronomer Slobodan Ninkovic who drove from Belgrade, Serbia, to Side (pronounced SEE-deh). “We were inside an ancient city – it was very impressive.”

Children sat on the ruined stone steps of the second-century Roman theater and watched as astronomers from NASA and the San Francisco-based Exploratorium science museum, using large telescope and cameras, broadcast the phenomenon live on the Web.

The eclipse came as a welcome break for Turkey’s tourism industry, which attracted 21 million visitors and brought in $18 billion last year, but saw tourism numbers fall 10 percent after an outbreak of bird flu earlier this year.

“After two or three months of suffering, I hope this is a turning point for us,” Tourism Minister Atilla Koc said.

Tourism Ministry spokesman Tayfun Yahsi said 200,000 tourists had arrived in the Antalya region, one of the country’s most popular tourist areas.

Many in Ghana, a deeply religious country of Christians and Muslims, said the eclipse bolstered their faith.

“I’ve never experienced this and we all need to pray to God and worship him. I believe it’s a wonderful work of God,” said Solomon Pomenya, a 52-year old doctor. “This tells me that God is a true engineer.”

Health authorities warn that staring directly at the sun can damage the eyes.

The moon began blocking out the sun in the morning in Brazil before cutting a dark swath across Africa, then Turkey and up into Mongolia, where it will fade out with the sunset.

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