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Earth's inhabitants watch as midday turns to night and back

For a few minutes, the total eclipse of the sun trumps other human activities, and the people in its path turn their gaze to the sky.

Casting darkness across Europe in the very heart of day, the last solar eclipse of the millennium on Wednesday brought with it wonder and hokum, celebrations and a humbling reminder that humanity is a small cog in the mechanics of existence.

Sweeping across Earth's face at more than 1,700 mph, the 60-mile-wide shadow _ projected as the moon moved in front of the sun _ produced false and fleeting night on a globe-girdling path from Nova Scotia to the Bay of Bengal off eastern India.

"You realize there's a universe out there when something like this comes along to remind you," marveled Dennis Coombs, 53, who traveled from London to eastern France with his wife Brenda, 51, to see the eclipse.

In Iran, Ayatollah Khameini, the spiritual leader, called on the Muslim faithful to pray before the awesome display of God's power. At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II, an astronomy buff, cut short his weekly audience with pilgrims, saying: "I know that some of you are in a hurry to see the eclipse of the sun." The pontiff then viewed it himself from the papal helicopter and through welder's glasses.

In Reims, the thick clouds that kept much of northern Europe from witnessing the much-awaited celestial event parted just in time for the Coombses and 80,000 others massed in front of a Gothic cathedral to see the sun slip behind the dark orb of the moon. People cheered and applauded.

There was a final, dazzling burst of light from the sun's lower left-hand corner _ a phenomenon known as the "diamond ring." At 24 minutes past noon, an eerie twilight fell on Reims, and birds flew home to roost in the 13th-century cathedral's twin bell towers.

"Realizing what was going on above our heads _ the moon moving perfectly in front of the sun _ moved me deeply," said Peter Vinde, 50, a Danish dentist who made a 13-hour overnight bus trip to see the eclipse. "I think I was trembling all over."

After 2 minutes, 4 seconds of darkness, the sun began to re-emerge, and Reims once again was bathed in light. To celebrate, American soprano Jessye Norman, performing on a stage specially erected in front of the cathedral, belted out the spiritual He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Some watchers popped the corks of champagne bottles to toast the fact that they had come through an event long considered an astronomical harbinger of evil.

Hundreds of miles north and south of the 60-mile strip of total eclipse, deep into northern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the sun was partially blocked.

In London, 96.5 percent of the sun was hidden. Telephones fell silent and trading floors emptied as employees in Europe's most important financial center stopped work to rush outside. The London Chamber of Commerce estimated the ogling may have cost the City of London, as the financial district is known, $154-million.

A few astrologers and doomsayers, including fashion designer Paco Rabanne, had been predicting that Wednesday's eclipse would bring natural calamities, even the end of the world. In Paris, 200 people met near one of Rabanne's upscale boutiques to share a "survivor's aperitif" and mock the couturier's dire prophecy that on the very day of the eclipse, Russia's Mir space station would fall to earth and destroy Paris.