Itinerarios

The Cave of the Seven Sleepers


by Giampiero Sandionigi |  6 de febrero de 2015

The modern mosque which has stood next to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, on the outskirts of Amman, the Jordanian capital, since 2006. (foto 1/6)

The cave is a burial place of the Byzantine period dug in the side of a limestone hill.

The entrance to the small cave...

... very near one of the ancient caravan routes. Although less than in the past, the small shrine is still a destination for Muslim and Christian pilgrims.

Two of the sarcophaguses dug in the walls of the cave.

A detail of the engravings in the rock.

Just a little way south-east of Amman, in Jordan, we are at Al Raqim. On the side of a low hill, an ancient Byzantine burial place was dug out, which then became a Muslim shrine. The place celebrates the incorruptible faith in one God and is based on an ancient Christian narrative, which was then also picked up by the Koran. It is the story of the seven sleepers. Let us tell you this story.


Sura 18 is in the heart of the Koran. Also known as the Sura of the Cave, it contains three narrations, the first of which speaks about a cave which gave shelter to seven youngsters and a dog.

In actual fact, the Sura invites readers not to give importance to the exact number of the characters, but rather to look at their example of firm faith in one God. The story is summarized as though it were known and in (pre-Islamic) Christian antiquity, the story was very popular. We are in the times of the Emperor Decius (249-51) and some young Christians – perhaps the sons of noblemen – are taken before the magistrate to abjure. Released so that they can reflect, the friends decide to flee persecution by sheltering in an isolated cave, where they fall asleep. When they wake up, one of them goes to the city to buy food, but he feels lost and the merchants refuse to accept the unknown money he would like to use to pay for his shopping. The youngster realizes that his sleep has not lasted a few hours but two hundred years: we are in the fifth century, Theodosius II reigns (408-450) and there is no longer any hostility for Christianity.

Followed by some of the city’s dwellers, the youngster runs to his companions and tells them of his discovery. The youngsters eat and bless God for the miracle. Happy, the same evening they fall asleep in the sleep of death, in the company of their faithful dog. A shrine is built on the place of their burial.

We are at Al Raqim, a limestone hill near the village of Abu ‘Alanda, 8 kilometres south-east of Amman, the capital of Jordan. Three small alcoves and seven sarcophagi have been dug out in the small cave. There are fragments of plaster with paintings of the Byzantine period which allude to the perennial succession of life and death and floral ornaments on the walls. The complex was brought to the light from 1963 and the remains of two mosques were found there. The place was on the caravan routes of merchants and pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Since 2006 a few dozen metres from the Cave there has stood a new mosque and an institute of Muslim theology. The modest shrine is visited by Muslims (not only Sunni) and Christians, but it is often overlooked by the pilgrim and tourist circuits.

The Christian narrations that inspired Sura 18 situate the story of the Seven Sleepers in Ephesus, in present-day Turkey. There too, near Mount Pion (Panayır Dağ), there is a cave, surrounded by a cemetery, which recalls the intrepid youngsters saved by the merciful divine slumber.

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