The Cave of the Seven Sleepers

In the Amman suburb of Abu Alanda is a special cave. It is believed that this is the location of the legend of the ‘seven sleepers’, in which seven Christian boys who were persecuted by the Roman Emperor Trajan escaped to this cave and slept there for 309 years. I went to visit one afternoon and find out more about this intriguing story.

The story of the Seven Sleepers is told in both Christian and Muslim traditions. The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh (c. 450–521), and the story can also be found in the writings of Gregory of Tours (538–594) and in History of the Lombards of Paul the Deacon (720–799). The best-known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus da Varagine’s Golden Legend (1259–1266). Versions of this story have been found in nine medieval languages and preserved in over 200 manuscripts, dating to between the 9th and 13th centuries. These include manuscripts in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Ge’ez, Coptic, Armenian, Middle Irish, and Old English. Translations are availible in Sogdian, Persian, Kyrgz, and Tatar, and the 13th Century poet Chardri composed an Old French version. The Islamic account of the story is found in Surah 18:9-26 of the Quran.

Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The story says that there was a group seven young men accused of being Christians under the reign of Emperor Trajan Decius. After refusing to abandon their faith, they fled the city of Ephesus, gave their belongings away to the poor and went to a mountain cave to pray, where they fell asleep. The emperor sealed the entrance to the cave. After 300 years, during the reign of Theodosius II (408–450), a landowner opened the cave and found the seven young men sleeping. They awoke and believed they had only been asleep for a day.

Decius orders the walling in of the Seven sleepers, from a 14th-century manuscript. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This site is revered by Christians and Muslims alike, and the dresscode reflects this. Women must wear an abaya and men can’t wear shorts or show their shoulders. Once properly dressed, you can enter the site and see inside the cave where the sleepers rested. Also on the site are the remains of two mosques and a Byzantine cemetery.

Recently, a new mosque was built next to the cave. It has a really beautiful exterior which makes for a very peaceful atmosphere.

If you have some spare time in Amman, this cave is well worth a visit. It takes around half an hour to see it all, leaving the rest of your day free for other activities and adventures. Ask your taxi driver to wait for you while you look around, and they’ll usually be happy to oblige!

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