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The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

  • Title/name : The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

 

The Seven Sleepers were seven young Christians from Ephesus who hid in a cave, not far from the city, to evade the obligation to sacrifice to the gods of Rome and to eat unclean meat, as ordered by Emperor Decius (reigned 250–51). Walled up alive with their dog, they fell into a mysterious sleep, then awoke for a few hours, in 448, when Emperor Theodosius II was reigning in Byzantium. This miraculous story, which made the Seven Sleepers early witnesses of the Resurrection, as well as heroes of the abandonment to God in solitude, belonged to both Christianity and Islam. In the Christian East, where spiritual life centred on Easter, their story was retranscribed in Syriac by Bishop Jacob of Serugh (451–521). The Greek Church, which set their feast days as 22 October and 4 August, included them in its first summary of the lives of the saints.

It is not a coincidence that the dark cave that sheltered them was located in Ephesus where, in pagan times, Diana-Artemis, goddess of nocturnal light, was worshipped; where fate was consulted in sleep and dreams; where Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist came to seek refuge after the first persecution of Jerusalem. For Mary, it would be the location of the Dormition. It was also at the entrance to their cave that Mary Magdalene was buried.

The Western Church celebrates their feast day on 27 July. Their story was translated into Latin twice by Gregory of Tours around the late sixth century. But it might have been transmitted by pilgrims returning from Ephesus, by sung poems narrating the lives of the saints or by Greek merchants travelling up the Rhône Valley or sailing towards England seeking tin. Assimilated to their cult was the ancient agrarian and stellar veneration of the seven Pleiades (the handmaidens of Artemis), whose dew invigorated the July harvest every year. From a very early date, caves and tombs were attributed to the Seven Sleepers in Europe: first in Rome and Marseille (church of Saint-Victor), then in various Rhine Valley locations. In central and western France, the caves of Marmoutiers, near Tours, and the crypt-dolmen of Stiffel, near Le Vieux-Marché, Côtes d’Armor, are dedicated to them.

In Islam, the story of the Seven Sleepers appears in sura 18 of the Qur’an, a sura entitled al-Kahf (“The Cave”). Considered one of the most important suras, its 110 verses are in principle recited every Friday. The Qur’an mentions the seven young men’s profession of faith faced with an impious world, their retreat to a cave whose entrance opens at midday, their mysterious rocking by the hand of God, the discussion of the duration of their sleep, the quest by one of them, after awakening, for licit food (azkā ta’aman). The subject of the following verses is the divine guidance of events, the search for the fountain of life by the prophets al-Khidr and Elias, the Wall of Gog that protects the Community of Believers. Thus the seven young men of Ephesus are often likened to the Abdāl, to the Protective Saints, and sura 18, which brings together these transhistorical themes, is called the “Apocalypse of Islam”.

The cult of the Seven Sleepers is the only one authorised in the Muslim world. In verses 18–21 of the sura, it is said that a masjid, a mosque, was dedicated to them. Like the Christians, they dedicated caves converted into oratories to the sleepers. They may be found in Damascus, on the slope of Jabal Qāsiyūn; in Jordan, at Raqī; in Cairo, at Muqattam, in the crypt of Maghawrī; in Algeria, at Guidjel, near Sétif, as well as N’gaous, Cap Matifou and Foum El-Toub; in Tunisia, at Bājah, Tawzar and Mides; in Morocco, at Sefrou; in Spain, at Loja, near Granada, and at Gandia, Valencia; and in Chinese Turkestan, at Toyūq.

They were often depicted in miniatures. A work from Tabriz, executed in the fifteenth century after a Chinese painting, depicts them snuggled up with their dog in the plenitude of a perfect circle, in the style of Buddhist saints dozing with their tiger. More interesting is the dedication of the Ottoman fleet to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, their supernatural rocking evoking that of the waves. Under the reed pens of calligraphers, the “ship of the Seven Sleepers” was linked to the image of Safina – the Argo Navis of Arab astronomers – a constellation located 30° from the South Pole, the neighbour of Suhayl (Canopus). It was using the South Pole, signalled by the double nebula of the Magellanic Clouds, the only window outside our galaxy, that Arab sailors of the Indian Ocean set their rudders.

Christians and Muslims considered the Seven Sleepers genuine presages of the Resurrection and Rest, witnesses to the action of the spirit over the body, of the protection of the individual in the envelopeof the soul[1]. In 1954 this belief shared by the monotheistic faiths inspired the orientalist Louis Massignon to establish, in the crypt-dolmen of Stiffel, a pilgrimage bringing together representatives of the three Abrahamic religions. On this occasion, a mass was celebrated and the Sura of the Cave was recited in Arabic.

NOTE

[1] The Cave of the Seven Sleepers evokes Noah’s Ark, where the species were protected from the Flood. In both Hebrew and Arabic, the same word is used to designate cenotaph and ark: tabot.

REFERENCE BIBLIOGRAPHY

Massignon L., Opera Minora, Tome III, 1969

Articles « Les Sept Dormants » Apocalypse de l’Islam, 1950, pp 104 118

« Le Culte Liturgique et populaire des VIII Dormants Martyrs d’Ephèse (Ahl al-Kahf) : Trait d’union Orient-Occident entre l’Islam et la Chrétienté ». Etude réunie par Youakim Moubarac en 1961, pp 119-180



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