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G.D. Summers

The last total eclipse of the sun in the Second Millennium AD followed a track across northern Anatolia, visible from the northern edge of the Anatolian Plateau including northern Cappadocia, on August 11, 1999. From a high vantage point, on the Camlik Pass


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between Yildizeli and Tokat, we had a magnificent panoramic view of this evocative occasion. Most striking was the suddenness of the totality. Without special glasses it was impossible to view the sun at all until the very moment of totality: Slight darkening of the sky and a surprisingly cool breeze raised our expectations, but would hardly have been noticed were it not for the sense of anticipation

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At the instant of totality spontaneous applause broke out amongst our international party. This event took place 2,854 years after the solar eclipse made famous in Herodotus Book I, chapter 74.
The ‘historical date’, that has long been used by students of history, is May 28, 585 BC. The ‘astronomical date’, i.e. that used by astronomers, is May 28, -584 (see appendix). Herodotus wrote:

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war subsequently broke out between the two countries and lasted for five years, during which both Lydians and Medes won a number of victories. One battle was fought at night. But then, after five years of indecisive warfare, a battle took place in which the armies had already engaged when day suddenly turned into night. This change from daylight into darkness had been foretold to the Ionians by Thales of Miletus, who fixed the date for it for the year in which it did, in fact, take place. Both the Lydians and the Medes broke off the engagement when they saw this darkening of the day: they were more anxious than they had been to conclude peace, and a reconciliation was brought about by Syennesis of Cilicia and Labynetus of Babylon, who were the men responsible both for the pact to keep the peace and for the exchange of marriages between the two kingdoms. They persuaded Alyattes to give his daughter Aryenis to Astyages, son of Cyaxares - knowing that treaties seldom remain intact without powerful sanctions. (Translation: Grene 1987).

This passage from Herodotus has often been discussed, but the identification of the mountain-top city on the Kerkenes Dag in north-central Anatolia with the Pteria of Herodotus (Przeworski 1929, Summers 1997), and thus identification of the site as a Median imperial city prompts this reappraisal of some of the problems surrounding the account given by "The Father of History". The Median city of Pteria was conceivably founded following the conclusion of the 5 year war between the Median and Lydian empires or, more probably, as the base from which the Medes organised their side of the Median-Lydian war.

The version of events that most closely follows the account given by Herodotus would have the war ending in its sixth year, on May 28, 585 at the "Battle of the Eclipse”, somewhere close to the Halys River (the modern Kizilirmak). The Median side was led by Cyaxares (explicitly in Herod. I.16.2 and I.103.2) who had been succeeded by his son Astyages by the time the peace treaty between the Medes and Lydians had been drawn up. The treaty was brokered by Syennesis, apparently the title rather than the name of the king of Cilicia, and Labynetus of Babylon (usually taken to be the Babylonian king Nabonidas, although there are considerable difficulties, (Beaulieu 1989, 80-83). Why should this account given by Herodotus be doubted and, if it is to be doubted, what might be retained as containing some historical truth? The inclusion of prediction by Thales in the narrative makes clear that Herodotus was referring to a total solar eclipse. The date and time of the eclipse, placed on the afternoon of May 28, 585 BC has long been associated with that referred to by Herodotus, there being no other candidate.

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