The Ancient Grotto of the Seven Sleepers

The Ancient Grotto of the Seven Sleepers

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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 (

By Ḏḥwty

References, 2014. July 27: SS. Maximian, Malchus, Martinian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine, Martyrs. [Online]
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Knight, K., 2012. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. [Online]
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Lonely Planet, 2014. Grotto of the Seven Sleepers. [Online]
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WikiIslam, 2013. Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in the Qur'an. [Online]
Available at:, 2011. The Cave of the Seven Sleepers. [Online]
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Story Of The Sleepers In The Cave: Early Time Travellers?

Is time travel possible? Is it slowly becoming a reality?

Why not, if we consider the fact we live in an age when the “wormhole theory” is broadening our horizons and helping us explore the possibility of Interstellar travel. Time travel events have been part of various religious traditions, holy texts do not directly address the idea of time travel, but indicate the idea that Mighty Power (God, Allah, Creator etc) does not experience time in the same narrow way that human beings do. If we open our minds than we’ll be able to see that modern science helps us prove rather than disprove religious miracles like Story of the Sleepers of the cave, Throne of Sheeba (Saba) or the Night Journey (Isra wal Miraj). They are all recorded in Quran and some in the old testament.

Legend of the Seven Sleepers

The story of the sleepers of the cave (Ashab al Kahf) is perhaps the most revisited stories in the Quran and evokes interest in all age groups.

In Judaic tradition this event is commonly is known as the story of seven sleepers. The Quran has deemed the detail on their number unimportant. It is about how a group of pious youth fled the persecution by their people for their belief. They along with their dog sought refuge inside a cave. It is believed by many including Maulana Mawdudi (famous Islamic scholar) that their cave was located in Ephesus, modern day Turkey.

Translation of three verses from the Quran are copied below:

[18:19] When we awakened them, they asked each other, “How long have you been here?” “We have been here one day or part of the day,” they answered. “Your Lord knows best how long we stayed here, so let us send one of us with this money to the city. Let him fetch the good lawful food, and buy some for us. Let him keep a low profile, and attract no attention.”

[18:25] They stayed in their cave three hundred years, increased by nine.

[18:26] Say [To them], “God is the best Knower of how long they stayed there.” He knows all secrets in the Heavens and the earth. By His grace you can see by His grace you can hear. There is none beside Him as Lord and Master, and He never permits any partners to share in His kingship.”

As can be noted from the verses above, sleep befalls them while in the cave. When they woke up, they sent out from among them a member to bring food. When that person reaches town, he discovers the vast changes that have occurred. His coin is found to be 100’s of year old. The Quran mentions the figure of 309 years. Similar stories have been part of the folklore across different cultures.

The Cave, A Pilgrimage Site

There is no evidence whether the incident took place, the cave, however, was turned into a pilgrimage site.

The grotto associated with the Seven Sleepers, located on the eastern slope of Panayirdag hill, became a highly venerated site and a major place of pilgrimage from the 5th to 15th centuries. Many people were buried in the grotto with the Sleepers. A brick church was built above the seven original tombs, with mosaic floors and marble revetments. A large, domed mausoleum was added to the cave in the 6th century.

Excavations were carried out in the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers between 1927 and 1930. Intriguingly, the archaeologists discovered that the cave complex predates the legend by several centuries. An abundance of lamps found in the Grotto date from before the 5th century, and not all of them are Christian.

Some researchers 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,” archeologist and historian John 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.”

Although the legend has no real explanation, it is one of the first authentic reports of time travel and till date remains a mystery.


The English name of this site refers to the seven sleepers who sought refuge in the cave, despite that accounts differ widely concerning the number of sleepers. The canonical Islamic text refers to seven sleeper and a dog. The site's Arabic name, Arabic: كهف الرقيم ‎, Kahf ar-Raqīm, is based on the triliteral root Arabic: ر-ق-م ‎, denoting writing or calligraphy. It may refer to the village or mountain that the cave is located in. It also may refer to the book that recorded the names of the seven sleepers, as is suggested in Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari's exegetical work Tafsir al-Tabari. The nearby village's modern name, al-Rajib, could be a corruption of the term al-Raqīm. [5]

In 1951, Jordanian journalist Taysir Thabyan discovered the Cave of Seven Sleepers. He preceded to publish its photo on the journal of the Syrian Military Police and inform the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. [6] The department assigned Jordanian archaeologist Rafiq al-Dajani the task of research and exploration in the cave. [7] They found eight smaller sealed tombs inside the main cave, with the bones preserved inside. [8]

Islamic Edit

Some argue that the Cave of Seven Sleepers is the location referred to in Surah al-Kahf of the Qur'an. [9] The surah is named after the Cave - al-Kahf - in honor of the alleged piety of the seven sleepers. [10] The site's connection with Islamic heritage led to the participation of various Islamic leagues in its exploration and excavation.

This cave was identified with Qur'anic record due to the name of nearby village al-Rajib, which is etymologically similar to the word al-Raqīm, mentioned in al-Kahf. Some also argue the site's correspondence with the Surat al-Kahf based on the finding of a dog's skull near the cave door. [11]

Parallels to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

There are a number of clear parallels between the Qur'anic story and the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

The two narratives clearly share many features which would indicate that they are in fact one and the same. They are virtually identical in the events they describe and both contain striking similarities in key details. Both story mention youths, a cave, a long sleep, buying bread with coins, and the Day of Judgement. Since the Syrian legend pre-dates the Qur'anic story by almost two centuries, it should be clear that the author of the Qur'an is simply retelling the Syrian story. The Qur'an even suggests in verse 18:9 that the audience is familiar with the story as they should have already "reflected" upon it.


Both stories begin by stating that a group of youths are in trouble. While the Qur'an gives few details on the nature of their problem, the Syriac legend tells specifically of an emperor, named Decius, who was forcing Christians to make sacrifices to the pagan gods or else face death.

Inscription at the Cave

In the Qur'anic account, the author asks if the reader has reflected on the companions of the cave and their inscription. The inclusion of the word "inscription" is an important detail connecting the story of the Qur'an with the story of the Seven Sleepers. In the Syriac legend, we have a more detailed narrative that states that the story of the youth's martyrdom was written and laid near the entrance of the cave.

While the Qur'an does not mention the inscription again, it plays an important role in the Syriac story. The people who discover the sleepers use the inscriptions to verify the truthfulness of the seven men's story. This helps make sense of why the author of the Qur'an would mention this detail as part of what the reader should "reflect" upon.

Among early Qur'anic commentators, there seems to be quite a bit of disagreement on the exact nature of the word "ar-Raqim" which is translated as "inscription" by all the major English translators. Sa'id bin Jubayr, who is held in the highest esteem by scholars of the Shi'ite and Sunni Islamic traditions, has his opinion recorded In Ibn Kathir's classic Tafsir. Ibn Kathir relates that Sa'id bin Jubayr said that the "ar-Raqim" was indeed an inscription placed at the entrance of the cave. This confirms the direct connection to the Syrian legend.

Disagreement Over Time in Cave

In retellings of the Syrian legend, there is some dispute about the time the sleepers were in the cave. Apparently, this disagreement among Christians was still an issue in the 7 th century when this story was first told to the early proto-Islamic Believer community. The Qur'an relates that Allah has woken the sleepers as a way to test who could calculate the length of their stay the best.


Another important detail between the two stories is that the companions are called "youths". This was likely a literary device in the original story to show that young people were more devout and fervent in their faith than older believers. Likewise, the Qur'anic story emphasizes their age as a polemic against those stuck in the same belief as their ancestors.

Perception of Time

Even though the young men sleep in the cave for hundreds of years, they think they have only slept just a day.

Money for Bread

Another similarity between the two stories is that both state that one of the companions goes to the city to buy bread with coins. The Syriac legend states that the name of the person who buys bread is Malchus.

Fear of Capture

While attempting to buy bread in town, Malchus is detained by town folk who are amazed that he has an ancient coin in his possession. He is fearful that the emperor and the town folk are pagans who will punish him. In the Qur'anic story, a companion warns the other to avoid capture out of fear that he will be forced back into polytheism.

Day of Judgement

Both the Syrian legend and the Qur'anic story state that the youth were awoken as a way to strengthen the faith of believers in the final Day of Judgement.

Place of Worship at Cave

The Qur'an states that a place of worship was built at the site of the cave after the events it describes. Interestingly, a church was built over the purported sight of the miracle in Ephesus. This cave was a destination for pilgrims for almost a thousand years. By the late 6 th century, this church contained marble structures and a large, domed mausoleum. Β] This information would have been known to Christians in Syria and likely passed along to the author of the Qur'anic verses as well.

Number of Sleepers

The author of these verses in the Qur'an does not provide a definitive answer for the number of sleepers, stating the possibility that there were three, five, or seven. The Syrian legend clearly and emphatically states in the first sentence that the story is about seven sleepers.

Slept for Hundreds of Years

Both accounts state that the youths slept for hundreds of years. The Qur'an stating that it was 300 years and the Syrian version stating the number was closer to 200. There is considerable variation in different versions of the Seven Sleeper legend as to the time frame that they slept. Though all of them are longer than 200 years.

The Syrian account identifies the Emperor persecuting the seven young men as Trajan Decius, who reigned from 249 - 251 CE. Since the story first originated around the middle of the 5 th century (circa 450 CE) a sleep of 200 years would be the more accurate number. Given this connection, some Islamic scholars and apologists in modern times have back-peddled on the number of 300 given in the Qur'an, re-interpreting it as a number given by the people at the time and not a definitive number given by Allah.

The Cave of the Seven Sleepers

The Seven Youths of Ephesus: Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodianus (Constantine) and Antoninus, lived around 250 AD. Saint Maximilian was the son of the Ephesus city administrator, and the other six youths were sons of illustrious citizens of Ephesus. The story says that during the persecutions by the Roman emperor Decius, around 250 AD, seven young men were accused of following Christianity. They were given some time to renounce their faith, but chose instead to give their worldly goods to the poor and retire to a mountain cave to pray. During the prayer, they became overcome by great sleepiness. When they were found sleeping in the cave, at the behest of the emperor the entrance to the cave was sealed. An alternative version of this story claims that Decius ordered the incarceration of young men in a cave as punishment for their beliefs.

When the men were awoken centuries later by a landowner seeking to use the cave, they felt they had slept but a day and sent one volunteer to Ephesus to buy food. Upon arriving tp Ephesus, this person was astounded to find buildings with crosses attached. The biggest sensation was caused by his attempt to pay for the food with old coins from the time of Decius. City residents called the local bishop, who heard the story of seven young men.

When these young men died, following an impressive funeral, they were buried in the cave on which a church was built later. The excavations carried on here during 1927-28 brought to light a church and several hundred graves which were dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls of the church and in the graves.

For hundreds of years, people wanted to be buried as close as possible to the Seven Sleepers who were considered holy. According to a Christian belief, St.Mary Magdalene is buried here, also.

The place is also known as the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers and it is now a ruined. In the side walls of the church, there are niches with arched vaults, and in the depths of the cave there is an apse. The inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls.

What to See

The Grotto of the Seven Sleepers is fenced off, but a large hole in the fence currently provides full access to the cave. The site is a bit off the beaten track, but still visited by many pilgrims and tourists. There is a small restaurant nearby.

The main part of the complex is the cave church in which the Seven Sleepers slept and were buried. The large cave, with a ceiling as high as many regular churches, has been lined with brick masonry to form a church. There are arch niches on the sides and a rounded apse in the back. The burial places of the sleepers in the floor are now open, empty holes.

Although it cannot be appreciated at the site, one of the most interesting aspects of the Grotto is the treasure trove of terracotta lamps that was discovered inside.

They date primarily to the 4th and 5th centuries. Most of the lamps are decorated with a cross others bear scenes from the Old Testament popular with Christians, such as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and Daniel in the lions‘ den. There are also a wide variety of secular scenes, such as fishermen and theatre performances.

But alongside these are pagan religious scenes such as Hercules and the lion, Zeus and Aphrodite, pictures of temple facades, and the head of the god Attis. Were these lamps made and used by Ephesians who considered themselves Christians but retained pagan traditions, or did pagans join Christians in devotions at the Cave of the Seven Sleepers? The answer is not clear, but either way it is evidence that paganism was still alive in 5h-century Ephesus.

Ephesus: The Legend of the Seven Sleepers

It's 250 A.D., and the Roman emperor Trajan Decius has come up with a sure-fire way to get rid of those pesky Christians. He orders everyone in the empire -- under pain of death -- to make sacrifices to idols of the Roman gods, figuring the Christians wouldn't do it. He was right, they wouldn't. And so the lions got some meaty meals.

Ephesus hosts nearly a million visitors a year.

Some accounts say the emperor's edict was particularly aimed at wiping out the large group of Christians nesting in the mega-city of Ephesus on the coast of modern day Turkey. There, in the Roman capital of Asia Minor, seven Christian lads are said to have escaped the onslaught by ducking into a mountain cave, where they fell asleep for a long, long time.

Like most legends, this one has lots of different versions - from ancient tales by Greek, Roman and Syrian writers to an account in the Muslim Quran. Following is one of the most popular versions.

The youngsters awoke some 180 years later, not knowing that by 313 A.D. it would be OK to be a Christian, and by 380 A.D. Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman empire.

St. Paul pitched Christianity to 25,000 Ephesians in their amphitheater.

According to the legend, around 430 A.D. the guy who owned the cave came across the seven sleepers and woke them up. Thinking they'd just slept for a night, when the lads went outside the cave they were shocked to see crosses on the gates to the city and on churches, and Jesus' name "on everyone's lips."

The Golden Legends, a best-seller of the Middle Ages, takes the story through a few more twists and turns, then tells how the Roman emperor (Theodosius) at the time compared the seven youngsters' awakening to Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus. How and when the sleepers died is kind of fuzzy, but they were eventually honored as saints with a Catholic feast day on July 27 and on Aug. 4 and Oct. 22 in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Visitors to Ephesus can see what's believed to be the site of the cave in a grotto of catacombs, tombs and graves near the city.

About Ephesus

The city hosts close to a million visitors a year, many from cruise ships docked at the Turkish port of Kusadasi. Tour buses take sightseers on a 20-minute ride to the ruins, during which guides note they're about to see the partially restored remains of the second largest city in the whole Roman empire, topped only by Rome itself.

Library of Celsus is one of the city's top attractions.

On most days the city is alive with tourists scampering around the iconic library of Celsus (where scholars once poured through 12,000 scrolls), a nearby brothel, all kinds of temples, fountains and gates, a 25,000-seat amphitheater (where St. Paul tried to preach to the Ephesians), public "latriana" potties (kept warm by slaves sitting on them during the winter) and the hillside homes of the Roman silky set.

Out in the boonies of the city is an odd-looking marble column, patched together from pieces of smaller columns. The lone column marks the location of Ephesus' greatest treasure: the spot where the most wondrous of the Seven Wonders of the World - the immense Temple of Artemis (the twin sister of the Greek super-god Apollo) - once stood.

Cave of Ashabe Kahf (The Cave of the Seven Sleepers)

The cave of the Ashabe Kahaf is a cave mentioned in the parable of the companions of the cave in the Quran and Christian tradition. Ashab Kahf are a group of people mentioned in Quran and Bible, who went in to wilderness to escape the pursecution of a cruel king. These people are said to have stayed in a cave where they fell asleep for a number of years.


Cite this article

Cave of Ashabe Kahf (The Cave of the Seven Sleepers) (n.d.). Retrieved on June 17, 2021, from

Cave of Ashabe Kahf (The Cave of the Seven Sleepers).” Madain Project,

Cave of Ashabe Kahf (The Cave of the Seven Sleepers).” Madain Project, n.d.

Note: Always review your references and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay attention to names, capitalization, and dates.


Different sources give different location for the Cave, some say it is situated in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan and even in Spain.

As the earliest versions of the legend spread from Ephesus, an early Christian catacomb came to be associated with it, attracting scores of pilgrims. On the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus (near modern Selçuk in Turkey), the grotto of the Seven Sleepers with ruins of the religious site built over it was excavated in 1926–1928. Other possible sites of the cave of the Seven Sleepers are in Afşin and Tarsus, Turkey.

Notable Locations

Turpan, China
The green dome covers the purported cave of Ashab in China, it is situated in a small village, Mazar Aldi, near Toyuq Mosque near the township of Tuyoq, Turpan, China. A cave tomb in a Chinese village is believed by the locals to be the grave of the Seven Sleepers (Ashab Kahf). But the tradition is relatively new, dating back to circa 1600 CE at it's oldest. The tomb was most likely a Buddhist burial/shrine of a holy man later transformed in to a Muslim shrine and tagged as the Cave of the Ashab Kahf (Seven Sleepers).

Amman, Jordan
The facade and the main entrance to the cave in Jordan. To the left of the entrance is an ancient olive tree. At one time a small church was built on top of the cave this was converted to a mosque with the mihrab still being visible above the entrance. The site - sometimes referred to as Kahaf ahl al-Kahaf or Kahaf al-Raqeem or Kahaf al-Rajeeb, is rather small partly natural and partly man-made cave. Outside the 'tomb', there are old ruins of shrines, two mosques and graves. One of the old mosques is right on top of the Cave.

Ephesus, Turkey
The Eshab-ı Kehf Cave or the grotto of Seven Sleepers in Ephesus, Turkey. It is a Byzantine necropolis where dozens of rock-cut tombs can be seen. The grotto is one of the several places related to the legend of a group of youths who hid inside a cave and years after woke up to find the world changed. This legend has two versions, Christian, and Islamic. The place known as the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers is now a ruined church carved into the rock. The cave was once lined with bricks that created the impression of a building.

Chenini, Tunisia
The legend goes that 7 Christians were imprisoned by the Romans at this spot, and locked away for 400 years. When they were let out, they had grown to heights of about 4 metres. Called by Augustine of Hippo “Kenini” which would draw its origin from Kanaan, everything leads to believe that this is the origin of the word Chenini, the historic Berber village in Tunisia.

Mar Musa, Syria
A small cave near the Mar Musa al-Habbashin (Saint Moses the Abyssinian), was found which was dubbed as the Cave of the Seven Sleepers (C34). The archaeological excavations have revealed at least 30 caves around the area and one watering-hole. A large number of icons of Seven Sleepers were found during the recent restoration process of the building and the artefacts it contains.

İzmir, Turkey
The site known as the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers is an archaeological site where the remains of a Byzantine era church are found carved into the rock. The cave was once lined with bricks that created the impression of a building. In the side walls of the church, there are niches with arched vaults, and in the northern wall of the cave there is an apse. The inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls.

Kahramanmaraş, Turkey
Eshab-ı Kehf Kulliye is a historical building complex in Kahramanmaraş Province, Turkey. The külliye is known as the cave of the Seven Sleepers, a legendary people probably lived in the 5th century CE. Originally a church was built by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II in 446 CE on this site. During the Seljuks of Anatolia era Seljuk governor Nasretüddin built a mosque, a caravanserai and a fortified barracks between 1215 and 1233.


"The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus Discovered by Alexander the Great", Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens) or The seven sleepers of Ephesus, Folio from a Dispersed Nuzhatnama, 1550 CE. In Christian and Muslim tradition, the Seven Sleepers (اصحاب الکهف), aṣḥāb al kahf, the 'People of the Cave' is the story of a group of youths who hid inside a cave outside the city of Ephesus around 250 CE to escape a religious persecution and emerged some 300 years later.

The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh (circa 450 – 521), which is itself derived from an earlier Greek source, now lost. The story appears in the Qur'an (Surah Al-Kahf 9–26) and thus is important to Islam. The Islamic version includes mention of a dog, who accompanied the youths into the cave and appears to keep watch. In Islam, these youths are referred to as the People of the Cave.


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Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heiligbloodbasiliek)

The left image shows the outside of the church, and the middle shows the interior of the upper chapel with its vivid colors. On the right is a view of the austere lower chapel.

Our next stop in the tale is ancient Ephesus, near modern day Selçuk. Along with the numerous sites in Ephesus is the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers, a tale dating to at least the sixth century (and retold in the Qu’ran, of all places, which has undoubtedly led to the site’s survival all this time).

The Seven Sleepers in the Cave

During the reign of the Emperor Decius, seven noble men—Achillidis (son of a prefect), Diomedis, Diogenus, Probatus, Sambatus, Stephanus, and Quiriacus—were prominent figures in the palace, and held in great affection by the emperor. Even so, they were appalled by his worship of idols, and after a time converted to Christianity and were baptized, taking the names Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Constantinus, Dionisius, Johannis, and Serapion.

When Decius arrived in Ephesus, he ordered that Christians be sought out and compelled to offer sacrifice to the gods. Seeing this, the seven converts sprinkled themselves with ashes and fervently prayed to God for deliverance. Their actions were made known to the emperor, and he raged against them. Brought to him in chains and challenged to sacrifice, they replied “Our God is the one, true God… We know that those names which you urge us to worship under the name of gods are absolutely nothing. And so those who worship them are by the sanction of the prophets condemned to become like them.”

Once more, the emperor raged against them, but his affection for them was such that he was unwilling to put them to torture. And so he had them freed until he returned once again to the city, when he would test them a second time. Returning to their homes, they gathered their possessions and gave them to the poor, and then retired to a cave on Mount Chilleus with only enough money to sustain them. One of them, Malchus, was chosen to keep the purse, return to the city for food and to inquire about the emperor and the fate of their fellow Christians.

When the Decius once again returned to Ephesus, he inquired about Maximianus and his comrades to their parents, who revealed where they were. Malchus, having returned to the city for food, heard of this and reported back to his comrades. In fear for what might come next, they fell down in prayer. Because God knew they would be needed in the future, he caught up their souls into heaven, and left their bodies in the cave as if in a sweet sleep.

Still unwilling to put them to torture, Decius ordered his men to seal up the cave and leave them to their fates. Among those sent were two Christians who wrote the story of the Seven on lead tablets and placed them at the entrance to the cave, so that whenever God willed their blessed bodies should be revealed, others could know of their sacrifice. Thus was the cave sealed, and the seven sleepers left within.

Time passed, Decius died, and yet the sleepers remained preserved, their bodies and even their clothing not undergoing decay. Almost two centuries later, a new emperor—Theodosius, son of Arcadius—rose to power. The empire, however, was now Christian, and although the persecutions had ended, error still stalked the land. New teachings were in the air, among them the notion that the body would not experience a physical resurrection. In desperation to do the right thing, Theodosius prayed for some revelation that would teach him the truth.

At the same time, shepherds were building enclosures on Mount Chilleus using the rocks from the mouth of the cave. Thus was the cave opened, and the breath of life returned to the sleepers. Thinking they had slept a single night, they sent Malchus to the city to inquire about Decius and return with news and food.

When Malchus approach the gates, he saw a cross raised high above them, and within the city he heard to the name of Christ and saw priests going about their business. “What is this miracle?” he wondered. “Has the emperor converted overnight?”

Now the silver Malchus had was imprinted with the image of Decius, and when he tried to pay for food with it, the merchants thought he had found ancient treasure. Because of his obvious confusion, they brought him to the bishop and the prefect, who told him that Decius had been dead many years.

“I thought that I with my brothers had slept only one night, but as I learn, the course of many years has passed during our sleep. And now the Lord has aroused me with my brothers that every age might know that the resurrection of the dead will come to pass. Therefore follow me and I will show you my brothers who have arisen with me.”

Saying this, he led them to the cave, and all the city followed with him. And there at the entrance they found the tablets engraved with their story, and learned that all Malchus said was true. The bishop sent messengers to the emperor, urging him to hasten to the location “for a great miracle has been manifested so he will know that the hope of the resurrection is real.”

And Theodosius fell to the ground in thanksgiving to God for answering his prayer, then mounted his horse and hastened to the location. He embraced each of the sleepers and did them homage, saying, “I see your faces as if I saw my Lord Jesus Christ when He called Lazarus from the Tomb.”

Maximianus replied, “The Lord ordered us to rise again to strengthen your faith. Trust always in him that resurrection of the dead will come to pass, since today you see us resurrected and telling of the greatness of God.”

Having said this, the seven stretched themselves out upon the ground, and slept once more until the trumpet shall summon them once more to the resurrection of the flesh.


I adapted various sources to retell the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, but primarily St. Gregory of Tours (538-594), whose version became the standard and was hugely popular. I’ve attempted to preserve the folkloric feel of the material, which is a notable feature of various retellings. Earlier versions survive in Greek and Syriac, with Gregory was probably using the latter. The story was later retold in the Koran (Surah 18: 9-26), which adds a dog for some reason, and is found in a homily by Aelfric (#23 on the Saints).

Different caves are cited as the location, and one account of a pilgrimage (De situ terrae sanctae, by the deacon Theodosius, early 5th century) mentions such a site of veneration in a grotto on a mountain in Ephesus. Numerous burials have been found around this location, indicating the desire to be buried close to saints and holy sites, a practice which St. Augustine strongly opposed.

The narrative begins in the reign of Decius (249-251) and culminates in the reign of Theodosius II (407-450). This places the origin point in the large-scale Decian persecutions that began in 250. As the story relates, these persecutions were triggered by the insistence that all citizens perform acts of worship to the gods. Once they had done so, they were given a certificate of proof. A surviving example of this kind of document reads:

”We have always followed the practice of sacrificing to the gods, and now while you are present we have sacrificed, have made libations, and have tasted the offerings in accordance with the regulations and we request you to certify this.” (Winter, Papyri in the University of Michigan Collection: III Misc. Papyri)

Naturally, a Christian could not do this, so there was widespread persecution.

The end-point of the narrative also provides interesting historical context. The 5th century saw the rise of controversies over Christology, as well as continued debate about the legacy of Origin, particularly how Christians should view the resurrection of the body. Theodosius II, presided over two theological disputes 20 years apart. The first was triggered when he named Nestorius Archbishop of Constantinople. Nestorius is kind of a hapless figure, since in attempting to find a middle way between two theological positions (that Christ was both God and man and that God could not be born in the flesh) he wound up with a heresy named for him. Essentially, he denied the hypostatic union—that full humanity and divinity exist in Christ—before anyone really understood what the hypostatic union was. To resolve the issue, Theodosius called the Council of Ephesus in 431 and Nestorius lost. Twenty years later, Theodosius convened another council (the Second Council of Ephesus) to resolve once again the Monophysite heresy, which suggested a fusion of the divine and human natures. The results were chaos, and Leo the Great later dubbed it the Robber Council and nullified its acts.

All of which is to say that the character of Theodosius who appears in the Seven Sleepers was carrying a lot of meaning for the readers of Gregory’s time. That the sleepers awaken to convince him of a truth about resurrection and the body suggests that the story had a pedagogical purpose. The characters, narrative, and language of the story have the feel of a folktale rather than a history. Gregory of Tours was a historian, and although there is debate about the accuracy of his History of the Franks, there’s no question that he could write in a purely historical way. His shaping of the material in his story of the Seven Sleepers doesn’t have that feel, and thus any historical core to the story is beside the point. This is a tale with a purpose: to amaze and inspire while also delivering a lesson about the body and the resurrection. It is certainly built on a tradition related to Decian martyrs, as is obvious from the graves located near the pilgrimage site in Ephesus, but given the sketchy information about most Roman martyrs, its historical content must remain uncertain.

Main image from the Menologion of Basil II

Seven Sleepers Cave, Ephesus, Turkey (Image: Ephesus Tour)

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