The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
Cave of the Seven Sleepers, Ephesus, Turkey
At the archaeological site of Ephesus, a well-paved road heading east of the Vedius Gymnasium leads to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, about .8km (1/2 mile) away.
History of Cave of the Seven Sleepers
The "Seven Sleepers" were seven young men who had been walled up in a cave during the persecutions under Decius (c.250).
They fell asleep, miraculously waking up around 435 in the time of Theodosius II.
The seven men wandered into the city of Ephesus, amazed at all the churches and the freedom of worship for Christians.
The Sleepers later died naturally (and permanently) and were buried in the cave in which they had slept.
The miracle was apparently first described by Bishop Stephen of Ephesus (448-51). It seems to have been immediately accepted, perhaps in part because of its usefulness for a current Origenist controversy having to do with the resurrection of the body.
Interestingly, the Seven Sleepers also appear in the Qur'an (Koran); in this version, the boys are accompanied by a dog (Sura 18).
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.
What to See at Cave of the Seven Sleepers
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 5th-century Ephesus.