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Cave of the Seven Sleepers - 360° virtual tour
The Cave of the Seven Sleepers (Ahl al-Kahf in Arabic) is a famous pilgrimage site in the outskirts of Amman, just about 7km from city centre.
It is associated with a common story of Christianity and Islam that gradually faded away and got forgotten by most Christians. However, Holy Qur’an still preserves this story in Surah al-Kahf 18 (the cave).
We have to note that this is just one of the places that claim to be the cave of the seven sleepers, and the most famous one is located at Ephesus, Turkey.
1. The story
Once upon a time, during the persecution of Christianity led by the Roman Emperor Trajan Decius, a few young men were accused of Christianity. They were given some time to recant their faith, but chose instead to give their worldly goods to the poor and sought refuge in a cave. Thus the emperor ordered to lock the entrance of the cave with large stones and God put the young Christians to sleep for 309 years. Years passed and the Roman Empire has changed much: Christianity replaced pagan cults. During the reign of Emperor Theodosius II a new heretics emerged, a sect denying the resurrection of the body. At that time a rich landowner had the cave opened to use it as a cattle-stall. When the sleepers were finally awakened, they believed to have slept only for a few hours. Since being hungry after 309 years of sleeping, one of the sleepers was sent to a nearby village to buy food. The coins he tried to use were no longer in circulation and thus people didn't believe him. It was said that the young people must have found a hidden treasure, and as a result, they were taken to a bishop, a governor and they finally met Emperor Theodosius II. Miraculously an old inscription proving their story was found among the blocking stones of the cave. It was hidden by a Christian member of the team that closed up and sealed the cave. When Emperor Theodosius II realized that a miracle had occurred, he ordered celebrations. This story has however a sad ending: soon after fulfilling their destiny to testify resurrection, the sleepers fell into an eternal sleep and were buried in the cave where they've slept beforehand.
It is also mentioned in Surah al-Kahf that Prophet Muhammad was challenged by the Jews to tell them the story of the sleepers. The story was well-known to Jews but not to Muhammad who lived in Medina many hundreds of kilometres away. So the Jews told non-believers to ask Muhammad about the story of the sleepers, who having no idea about it, awaited an answer from Jabril (Gabriel). Next day the Jews were shocked to hear the complete story with all possible versions of it that were circulating among them. Prophet Muhammad didn't give the exact number of the sleepers: some people would tell they were 3 and 1 dog, others would tell they were 5 and 1 dog and still others told they were 7 and 1 dog. As a comparison, the Christian version of the story is about seven young people and the dog never gets mentioned. Getting back to the Holy Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf contains interesting details that would need further explanation like the fact, that the youth were turning left to right and back during their sleep, while their dog stretched his forelegs at the entrance. The conclusion of the story in Holy Qur’an is that Muhammad successfully defended himself as being a true prophet of God.
2. What to see
Next to a modern mosque, right is in the middle of an antique cemetery and ruins of old mosques stands the the famous cave. Being converted into a Byzantine tomb, its entrance is decorated with wonderful stone carvings. Inside there are four sarcophagi, each adorned with a unique symbol. One of them has a much-worn hole through which you can peek at the remains of the sleepers.
Just about 500 meters from this site, along the road back to Amman is another Byzantine cemetery with one incredibly beautiful tomb entrance.
3. When to see
The cave should be open daily between 8am and 5 or 6pm. During our visit in August 2011, we've found the site still open a few minutes before 7pm with the cave being locked.
4. Questions to be answered
There are several unanswered questions about this site.
Could it have been the cemetery of antique Rabbath-Ammon (Amman)?
As it is just about 7km from city centre, and we know that antique Roman cemeteries were always built outside the town. Furthermore, the cemetery of Amman hasn't been unearthed yet and the closest ancient settlement to this cemetery is present Amman. All in all, we could say that it is possible.
Why is it that the mihrabs of the ruined mosques don't indicate the direction to Mecca?
Probably because they were built on the walls of earlier Christian chapels, following the layout of the cave. But anyway, one thing is sure: the mihrabs neither show the direction to Mecca, nor to Jerusalem (prior to praying towards Mecca, Muslims had to pray towards Jerusalem).