The Seven Sleepers, commonly called the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus”, refers to a group of Christian youths who hid inside a cave outside the city of Ephesus around 250 AD, to escape a persecution of Christians being conducted during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius. Another version is that Decius ordered them imprisoned in a closed cave to die there as punishment for being Christians. Having fallen asleep inside the cave, they purportedly awoke approximately 180 years later during the reign of Theodosius II, following which they were reportedly seen by the people of the now-Christian city before dying.
The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Sarug (c. 450-521), which is itself derived from an earlier Greek source, now lost. An outline of this tale appears in Gregory of Tours (b. 538, d. 594), and in Paul the Deacon’s (b. 720, d. 799) History of the Lombards. The best-known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.
The Roman Martyrology mentions the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus under the date of 27 July: “Commemoration of the seven Holy Sleepers of Ephesus, who, it is recounted, after undergoing martyrdom, rest in peace, awaiting the day of resurrection.” The Byzantine Calendar commemorates them with feasts on 4 August and 22 October.
The story has its highest prominence in the Muslim world; it is told in the Qur’an (Surah 18, verse 9-26). The Quranic rendering of this story doesn’t state exactly the number of sleepers Surah 18, verse 22. Unlike the Christian story, the Islamic version includes mention of a dog who accompanied the youths into the cave, and was also asleep, but when people passed by the cave it looked as if the dog was just keeping watch at the entrance, making them afraid of seeing what is in the cave once they saw the dog. In Islam, these youths are referred to as “The People of the Cave”.
The story alleges that during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, around 250 AD, seven young men were accused of following Christianity. They were given some time to recant their faith, but chose instead to give their worldly goods to the poor and retire to a mountain cave to pray, where they fell asleep. The emperor, seeing that their attitude towards paganism had not improved, ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed.
Decius died in 251, and many years passed during which Christianity went from being persecuted to being the state religion of the Roman Empire. At some later time—usually given as during the reign of Theodosius II (408–450)—the landowner decided to open up the sealed mouth of the cave, thinking to use it as a cattle pen. He opened it and found the sleepers inside. They awoke, imagining that they had slept but one day, and sent one of their number to Ephesus to buy food, with instructions to be careful lest the pagans recognize and seize him. Upon arriving in the city, this person was astounded to find buildings with crosses attached; the townspeople for their part were astounded to find a man trying to spend old coins from the reign of Decius. The bishop was summoned to interview the sleepers; they told him their miracle story, and died praising God.
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 church built over it was excavated in 1927–28. The excavation brought to light 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. This “grotto” is still shown to tourists.
The story appeared in several Syriac sources before Gregory’s lifetime. It was retold by Symeon Metaphrastes. Another Syriac version is printed in Land’s Anecdota, iii. 87ff; see also Barhebraeus, Chron. eccles. i. 142ff., and cf Assemani, Bib. Or. i. 335ff.
The Seven Sleepers form the subject of a homily in verse by the Edessan poet Jacob of Saruq (“Sarugh”) (died 521), which was published in the Acta Sanctorum. Another 6th-century version, in a Syrian manuscript in the British Museum (Cat. Syr. Mss, p. 1090), gives eight sleepers. There are considerable variations as to their names.
The story rapidly attained a wide diffusion throughout Christendom, popularized in the West by Gregory of Tours, in his late 6th-century collection of miracles, De gloria martyrum (Glory of the Martyrs). Gregory says that he had the legend from “a certain Syrian”.
In the following century, Paul the Deacon told the tale in his History of the Lombards (i.4) but gave it a different setting:
In the farthest boundaries of Germany toward the west-north-west, on the shore of the ocean itself, a cave is seen under a projecting rock, where for an unknown time seven men repose wrapped in a long sleep.
Their dress identified them as Romans, according to Paul, and none of the local barbarians dared to touch them.
During the period of the Crusades, bones from the sepulchres near Ephesus, identified as relics of the Seven Sleepers, were transported to Marseille, France, in a large stone coffin, which remained a trophy of the Abbey of Saint Victor, Marseille.
The Seven Sleepers were included in the Golden Legend compilation, the most popular book of the later Middle Ages, which fixed a precise date for their resurrection, 378 AD, in the reign of Theodosius.
The Qur’anic version
[18:7] We have adorned everything on earth, in order to test them, and thus distinguish those among them who work righteousness.
[18:8] Inevitably, we will wipe out everything on it (the earth), leaving it completely barren.
[18:9] Why else do you think we are telling you about the people of the cave, and the numbers connected with them? They are among our wondrous signs.
[18:10] When the youths took refuge in the cave, they said, “Oh Our Lord, shower us with Your mercy, and bless our affairs with Your guidance.”
[18:11] We then sealed their ears in the cave for a predetermined number of years.
[18:12] Then we resurrected them to see which of the two parties could count the duration of their stay therein.
[18:13] We narrate to you their history truthfully. They were youths who believed in their Lord, and we increased them in their guidance.
[18:14] We strengthened their hearts when they stood up and proclaimed: “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. We will never worship any other god beside Him. Otherwise, we would be far astray”.
[18:15] “Here are our people setting up gods besides Him. If only they could provide any proof to support their stand! Who is more evil than the one who fabricates lies and attributes them to God?”
[18:16] [They said to each other:] “Since you wish to avoid them, and their worshiping of other than God, let us take refuge in the cave. May your Lord shower you with His mercy and direct you to the right decision.”
[18:17] And you could see the sun when it rose coming from the right side of their cave, and when it set, it shone on them from the left, as they slept in the hollow thereof. This is one of God’s portents. Whomever God guides is the truly guided one, and whomever He sends astray, you will not find for him a guiding teacher.
[18:18] You would think that they were awake, when they were in fact asleep. We turned them to the right side and the left side, while their dog stretched his legs in their midst. Had you looked at them, you would have fled from them, stricken with terror.
[18:19] When we resurrected 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 cleanest food, and buy some for us. Let him keep a low profile, and attract no attention.”
[18:20] “If they discover you, they will stone you, or force you to revert to their religion, then you can never succeed.”
[18:21] We caused them to be discovered, to let everyone know that God’s promise is true, and to remove all doubt concerning the end of the world. The people then disputed among themselves regarding them. Some said, “Let us build a building around them.” Their Lord is the best Knower about them. Those who prevailed said, “We will build a place of worship around them.”
[18:22] Some would say, “They were three; their dog being the fourth,” while others would say, “Five; the sixth being their dog,” as they guessed. Others said, “Seven,” and the eighth was their dog. Say, “My Lord is the best Knower of their number.” It is but few that know their real case. Enter not, therefore, into controversies concerning them, except on a matter that is clear. Nor consult any of them about the affair of the Sleepers.
[18:23] And do not not say: “I will do this tomorrow”,
[18:24] without saying, “if God Wills.” And, if you forget to do this, you must immediately remember your Lord and say, “May my Lord guide me to do better next time.”
[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.”
Islamic scholarly interpretation
The above mentioned verses from the Qur’an are the only known Islamic source for this story. According to Muslim scholars, God revealed these verses because the people of Mecca challenged the Prophet Muhammad with questions that were passed on to them from the Jews of Medina in an effort to test his authenticity. They asked him about young men who disappeared in the past, about a man who traveled the earth from east to west, Zulqurnain, and about the soul.
The story parallels the Christian version, recounting the story of a group of young believers who resisted the pressure from their people to worship others beside God, and took refuge in a cave, following which they fell asleep for a long time. When they woke up they thought that they had slept for only a day or so, and they sent one of them back to the city to buy food. His use of old silver coins revealed the presence of these youths to the town. Soon after their discovery, the People of the Cave (as the Qur’an calls them) died and the people of their town built a place of worship at the site of their burial (the cave).
The Qur’an does [not] give their exact number. It mentions that some people would say that they were three, others would say five and some would say seven, in addition to one dog, and that they slept for 300 years, plus 9, which could mean 300 solar years or 309 lunar years (300 solar years are equal to 309 lunar years).
The Qur’an emphasized that their number and the length of their stay is known only to God and a few people, and that these issues are not the important part of the story, but rather the lessons that can be learned from it.
Location of the cave and duration of stay
Muslims firmly believe in the story as it is mentioned in the Qur’an; however, some aspects of the story are not covered in its account, including the exact location of the cave.Some allege that it is in Ephesus, Turkey; others cite a place near Amman, Jordan. Uyghur Muslims even suggest Tuyukhojam, Turpan is the location of the cave, because they believe that place matches the Qur’an’s description.
The exact dates of their alleged sleep are also not given in the Qur’an; some allege that they entered the cave at the time of Decius (250 AD) and they woke up at the time of Theodosius I (378–395) or Theodosius II (408–450), but neither of these dates can be reconciled with the Qur’an’s account of sleeping 300 or 309 years. Some Islamic scholars, however, assert that the 300 or 309 years mentioned in the Qur’an refers to periods of time alleged by those telling the tale, rather than a definitive statement by Allah as to how long they were actually there or this difference can be of solar and lunar years.
Another interpretation is based on the earlier legend of Joseph of Arimathea’s having come to Glastonbury, and the cave has been identified as the Chalice Well.
In Southern Tunisia, a mosque of Chenini is called “mosque of the Seven Sleepers” (Masjid al-Ruqood al-Sebaa) where the sleepers are allegedly buried: in the surroundings of the mosque some uncommonly large tombs (about 4 meters long) are visible. It is a popular belief that during their long sleep they did not stop growing, so when they woke up they had become giants.
Other Tunisian places where the Seven Sleepers’ cave is located are Mides, Tozeur, El-Oudiane (al-Udyān) and Talālat. According to the traveller Abu Salim al-Ayyashi (17th century), the place where they lie is a mountain over the village of Degache (which he calls Daqyūs).
Another place where popular beliefs locate the Seven Sleepers is Azeffoun, in Kabylia (Algeria), where a legend collected by Auguste Mouliéras speaks of seven shepherds who fled into a cave trying to escape the persecution of Decius (Deqyus) and slept forty years there. According to this version, they did not realize that their sleep was so long (but a baker did, since they tried to pay him with an old coin), and decided to get back to sleep. Accordingly, they are reputed to be still sleeping, in a bush difficult to reach, “an hour’s walk east of Azeffoun”. Their dog, watching over them, can be heard barking by passers-by.
A “mosque of the Seven Sleepers” also exists in the Algerian village of N’Gaous (Aures), but here the legend is somewhat modified, since the tradition speaks of seven people living there in historical times, who mysteriously disappeared and were miraculously found asleep many years later by the pious Sidi Kacem (d. 1623), who consequently ordered that a mosque be built in that place.