The Ancient Grotto of the Seven Sleepers
The short story Rip Van Winkle , written in 1819 by an American writer, Washington Irving, is about a man who woke up after a sleep of more than two decades. Although such a work of fiction is a relatively modern piece of writing, tales of people who fall asleep for an extraordinarily long period of time before waking up is a common motif in various cultures. One such story is the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers. Unlike the story of Rip Van Winkle, however, this story has a strong religious aspect attached to it.
The ancient Grotto of the Seven Sleepers is located in Ephesus, in modern day Turkey. According to the Christian version of the story, the Roman emperor Decius (A.D. 249 – 251) once came to Ephesus to enforce his law against Christians. He found seven Christian youths, tried them, and gave them some time to consider their position before leaving the city. When news of Decius’ return reached Ephesus, the youths, refusing to give up their faith, decided to give their property to the poor, and then went into a cave on Mount Anchilos to pray and prepare for their deaths. The youths fell asleep, and when the Roman soldiers found them in the cave, they were ordered by the emperor to seal the cave with large stones, thus trapping the youths in the cave.
The ancient site of the Grotto of Seven Sleepers in Ephesus, Turkey ( TripAdvisor)
About 180 years later, a wealthy landowner by the name of Adolios decided to open the cave to use it as a cattle stall. When the youths woke up, they were hungry, and decided to send of them, Diomedes, so the story goes, into the city to buy some bread. Diomedes was astonished to see churches in the city, as he thought that he had only been asleep for a day. When Diomedes tried to pay for bread using old coins from the reign of Decius, the bishop was summoned. The bishop then went with Diomedes to the cave, and was told their story. The sleepers then died praising God, and were declared saints.
A Russian icon featuring the Seven Sleepers . Photo source: Wikimedia.
There is a parallel story in the Qur’an. The Islamic version, however, is much less detailed than the Christian one. For instance, the Islamic version of the story does not mention the number of sleepers, or the period they were living in. This version does mention that the sleepers slept for 300 solar years, or 309 lunar years, and that dog guarded the grotto.
A similar story of the cave of sleepers is told in the Qur’an. ( Bensozia)
Regardless of the authenticity of the story, it probably served one purpose or another. It seems that during the period in which the sleepers awoke, there were a group of heretics denying the resurrection of the body. The seven sleepers were thus taken as proof of the resurrection of the body. Whether the seven sleepers did actually exist is another question altogether.
The occurrence of this so-called miracle meant that the cave was turned into a pilgrimage site. A church was later built on the cave, as evidenced by excavations carried out in the late 1920s. The transformation of the cave into a pilgrimage site would almost certainly have been a source of valuable income for the local church. As for the Islamic version of the story, it should be placed within the context of the Qur’an. The story of the Seven Sleepers was told in order to answer a question posed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Jews of Medina via the people of Mecca in order to test his authenticity. The vagueness of the story is supposed to emphasise that such details are known only to God and are not important to man. Instead, it is the lessons that can be learnt from it that is of greater importance.
"The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus Discovered by Alexander the Great", Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens) Rogers Fund, 1935. ( Wikipedia)
Archaeologist and historian John Bedell, suggests that the story could be understood as an echo of shamanistic beliefs. “What shamans in many cultures did was to fall into a sort of sleep, or trance, in which their souls left their bodies and explored other planes of existence,” Bedell writes on his blog site . “The lore of shamanism is full of shamans whose power was so great that they could do this for years; even more common are stories of shamans who did this on their first magical journeys, falling into comas of fabulous length before wakening to tell of marvellous things.”
Featured image: The grotto of the seven sleepers in Ephesus, Turkey ( memphistours.com)
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