The Sleepers of Ephesus
by: Frank Gelli
Revd. Frank Julian Gelli is an Anglican priest, cultural critic and a religious controversialist, working on religious dialogue. His last book "Julius Evola: the Sufi of Rome' is available on Amazon Kindle

Imagine an archaeologist conducting some excavations near the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, in what is now southern Turkey.

By a barren hillside, he comes across a suspicious heap of rocks, concealing the entrance to a cave. Inside, he beholds seven amazing sarcophagi. Each one bears a name in Greek letters: Maximian, Malchus, Marcian...and so on. Overwhelmed with excitement, he hurries back to the camp to summon his fellow diggers. Alas, by the time the party gets going, frantic efforts notwithstanding, he finds it impossible to retrace the spot. Everybody assumes a joke. It almost drives him mad. Indeed, swearing he was not telling a tall tale, he begs:

'I am not insane, am I?'

No, he is rational enough but then... what might the explanation be?

Well, he could just have stumbled upon the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, I suppose.

Emperor Philip the Arabian (a secret The Sleepers of Ephesus. Seven devout young men walled up in a cave at Ephesus during the pagan persecution of Emperor Decius, 250 AD. In chapter 33 of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, the unbelieving and mocking English historian, places the Sleepers 'among the insipid legends of ecclesiastical history'. I disagree. The version given in that wonderful medieval hagiography, The Golden Legend, is indeed spiritually bracing.

There were seven earnest lads in Ephesus who much delighted in doing good works. Taking Christ's preaching seriously, they sold their earthly goods and gave them to the poor. They prayed, perorated and fasted a lot. But the piety of the pious often excites the hatred of the wicked. Decius, the heathen ruler, and renegade former favourite of Emperor Philip the Arabian (a secret Christian), determined to break them. The brave boys made ready to embrace martyrdom when a heavenly voice told them to seek refuge in a nearby cave. On hearing of it, Decius gloated: 'Good! I'll wall up the blighters alive. Let their useless God help them now if he can!' And so indeed he did.

200 years later. The evil emperor is consigned to the dustbin of history, and the empire now rejoices under the monotheistic rule of God-fearing Theodosius II. So one day the goodly burghers of Ephesus see an oddly-attired young man walking their streets. He is hungry and wants to buy bread. Along with his six companions he has just woken up after a long, long nap.

But the coin he proffers is not legal tender: it bears the image of a pagan prince of two centuries earli...

Only a legend? Actually, the Byzantine Church calendar venerates the Seven Sleepers as saints, as does Catholic martyrology (Feast Day: 27 July.) But the lovely tale bears a stamp of authority well beyond the Christian tradition.

The Qur'an mentions the sleeping youths at some length in the Surah of the Cave. Islamic scholars still debate its precise import and meaning, as indeed Christian writers do, but the sheer fact of its being there should command respect...

Muslim commentators argue that Sura al-Kahf belongs to the latter Makkan phase of the Quranic revelations. The Prophet Muhammad's enemies sought to impugn his credentials by posing mischievous and trick questions, like about the exact number of the sleepers but he ably confounded them. At a time of increasing persecution of the Muslims by the pagan Quraysh, it is likely that the believers would have perceived an analogy between the pious monotheistic youths of the tale and their own plight.

Moreover, another implicit message conveyed by the story is hope in the resurrection of the body. A glorious belief Christians and Muslims fully share. The Sleepers are therefore bearers of good news. Hence their story spells out at least three things: a) faithfulness; b) resistance against evil, and c) the ultimate vindication and triumph of the good: al-hamdulillah!

The great French scholar and friend of Islam, Louis Massignon, believed that the narratives about the Sleepers constituted fertile ground for dialogue and the fostering of mutual sympathy between the adherents of the two worldwide faiths. I agree and I add my own bit. I am glad to report that I have discovered that inside the greatest national monument in London the visitor may actually view the images of the Sleepers of Ephesus.

I mean Westminster Abbey, the majestic church opposite the Houses of Parliament and near Big Ben. It has been used for all coronations since 1066.

At its heart is the sanctuary chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king before William the Conqueror took over. It is raised high above the ground to emphasise its sacredness. Around it lie the bodies of five kings and six queens of England. St Edward's tomb is at the centre. Sculptures on a stone screen deal with the life and visions of the Saint. One, though much defaced by time and vandalism, depicts Emperor Theodosius standing before the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. That St Edward was granted such a vision can only reinforce the high spiritual value and symbolic meaning of the story. I am sure Massignon would rejoice: Muslim-Christian heroes honoured in the heart of Britain's national shrine!

Thus far this may all seem sacred history and hagiography. But, I wonder, do the pious sleepers have a message for us today? Is humankind or large portions of it, perhaps collapsing back into the darkness of unbelief? What if the goodly youths saw the pitiful state of Christendom today? Might they not feel that they must return to the safe shelter of the cave once again, guarded by their faithful dog, as the Qur'an charmingly describes? And lie therein, waiting for God to rekindle the flame of faith in men's hearts?

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 9 | July 2013. It has been republished here with permission.