Digital Project

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz [The Caves]

What follows is an excerpt from Not Dead But Sleeping, Anna Della Subin’s book-length essay on the cultural politics of sleep. Not Dead But Sleeping traces the origins and incarnations of the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which has often been told (or rewritten) during moments of political awakening, from the founding of the United States to contemporary Egypt. Subin considers the myth’s speculative uses and revolutionary potential, poetically pushing back against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum, “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Originally published in 2016 as an ebook, Not Dead But Sleeping is now available in print.

They slept the sleep of Endymion, but the moonlight, unrequited in her love, could not reach them. They slept in the place of the Dormition; they slept while Mary Magdalene, from her grave, kept watch. They slept while the great temple to Artemis was sacked. They slept surrounded by a vast necropolis of believers, believers in them. They slept near St. John; having dreamed the Book of Revelation, he lay in imageless exhaustion. Above his tomb the cracked earth rose and fell, in rhythm; his breath scattered the dust.

In 1869, Mark Twain posed for pictures in the ruins of Ephesus. “We do not embellish the general desolation of a desert much,” he wrote. “We add what dignity we can to a stately ruin with our green umbrellas and jackasses, but it is little. However, we mean well.”

They slept not in Ephesus but in Afsus, a town in Elbistan. They slept not in Afsus but in Fis, the village in Turkey where the Kurdish separatist group PKK was founded. “The cave that is in Ephesus does not comply with the definitions of the Qur’an,” declares KurdishSaladinTV, a YouTube channel. “Since Saladin [Fis] is officially recognized as the cave of Seven Sleepers.”

They slept in Amman, argues a scholar from Amman, who has done extensive research on this subject. In 1961, Jordanian archaeologists unearthed the jaw of the dog Qitmir, with one incisor and four molars intact.

They slept by the side of the Silk Road in Xinjiang, while raisins dried in the sun. They slept in a cave that once belonged to the Buddha. Some call it Apsus. When the Red Guards came to destroy the shrine, it is said a dog singlehandedly drove them off.

They slept in Maimana, in northern Afghanistan, in a cave lined with hundreds of handprints traced in chalk. Clusters of white tombstones surround the entrance, indications of those who came to visit, or to join them. Some say the Buddhas to the southeast in Bamiyan were once the pagan tyrant Dikyanos and his consort, turned to stone in an act of divine punishment. Further retribution was exacted in March 2001, when the Buddhas were dynamited by the Taliban.

They slept on the outskirts of Paphos, where Aphrodite rose from the sea. Seven relics were found in the cave, variously claimed to be the seven martyrs or the fossilized remains of seven Cypriot dwarf hippopotamuses.

They slept in Nakhchivan, in the shadow of the Ilandag, a mountain whose peak was chipped by Noah’s Ark after the floodwaters receded. In the cave, no trace of the sleepers remains, except a meteorite worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims.

They slept in a nest in Tarsus, transformed into young birds. They fell asleep in Glastonbury, under the Chalice Well. They were weary from building a church out of twigs.

The whole of Europe thus, in one sense, answers the description of the cave, according to the website of the Lahore Ahmadiyya sect.

They slept in Gandia, south of Valencia, and in the hills of Granada at Loja. They slept in the crypt of the Marmoutier Abbey. They slept in every house on the Comoro Islands. They slept in Chenini, in southern Tunisia. When they awoke they were thirteen feet tall.

They slept in Marseille and in N’Gaous and in Nabk, in the monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian. They slept in the sky above Basra. The only sound was the footsteps of centuries entering and exiting the stage.

They slept over Damascus, in a cave on Mount Qasyun. The caretaker of their shrine carries a talisman: a photograph taken in the cave in 1954 of Louis Massignon, the Christian Islamicist who spent his life hunting traces of their sleep.

They slept in Vieux-Marché in Brittany, and in the cemetery of Guidjel, near Sétif. They were lost in God as they slept.

They slept in Tibhirine, south of Algiers, where seven French monks were beheaded in the night in 1996. They slept in Midelt, in Morocco, with their hands crossed in prayer, near the monastery where the surviving monks fled.

They slept in Yemen, in the mountain sanctuary of Jebel Saber, kept cool by a wind from the north that rushed through the underground tombs.

They slept in Finland, where they are feted each year on Unikeonpäivä, National Sleepyhead Day. The last person in the house to awaken is thrown into a lake. Or the left side of his chest is shaved.

They slept in Cairo in the crypt of al-Maghawri, once occupied by the Bektashi Sufi order and now by the Egyptian military. They slept through the call of the muezzin who cries, Prayer is better than sleep. They slept on the marble altar of the Siebenschläferkirche in Rotthof, in positions of overwrought repose.

Had you seen them, you would have fled in fear.

They were called Maximian, Malchus, Martinian, Dionysius, Constantine, John, and Serapion. Or Clemens, Primus, Laetus, Theodorus, Gaudens, Quiriacus, and Innocentius. Or Arshaledes, Diomedes, Eugenius, Dimatheus, Bronatheus, Stephus, and Cyriacus. Or Maksimilina, Mashilina, Martunus, Yamlikha, Dabriyus, Sirabiyun, and Afastatiyus. Or Aleekha, Muksulimta, Tub-yunus, Udurgut, Yunus, Yuanus, and Kushfootut. Or Maximianus, Dionysius, Exacustodianus, Constantinus, Jamblichus, Johannes, and Martinianus. Or Maximilianus, Dionysius, Amulichus, Martinus, Antoninus, Johannes, and Marcellus. Or Maximilien, Marc, Martini, Denis, Jean, Séraphim, and Constantin. Or Gormánudr, Frerm, Hrútm, Einm, Sólm, Selm, and Kornskurdarmánudr. Or Dom Christian, Brother Luc, Father Christophe, Brother Michel, Father Bruno, Father Célestin, and Brother Paul. Or Adam, Idris, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.

They made themselves a bed in your ear and went to sleep. And the night grew long and old and miraculous.

And their dog

It followed them as they fled. They drove it away with stones and branches, but it returned. They beat it nearly to death when, according to the Prophet’s companion ibn ‘Abbas, the dog spoke: “What do you want from me? Do not fear treachery from me: I love the friends of God.” Qitmir remained awake all those years, with neither food nor water, keeping vigil while they slept.

The dog was yellow. It was black and white. The stern thirteenth-century theologian ibn Taymiyya listed the color of Qitmir among Those Things That Cannot Be Proved and Are in Any Case Useless, alongside the part of the cow struck by Moses and the size and type of wood of Noah’s ship.

The dog was a man. Qitmir was Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet, appearing to the young men to test their faith. Or it was the Prophet’s companion Salman al-Farsi who appeared in canine form. The dog became the star 80 Ursae Majoris.

After God revealed their story to him, Muhammad wanted to visit the sleepers, but He would not permit it. The angel Gabriel told him to seat the four future caliphs, Abu-Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali, on the four corners of a carpet, and let a strong wind carry his envoys to the cave. When they arrived, they loosened the rocks blocking the entrance to the cave and the light burst in. Qitmir leaped to his feet and greeted the caliphs.

The dog signaled, “Come in!”

They sleep near the navel of the sea, to which all waters find their way. To reach them, one must traverse the land of frost. They sleep in a subterranean citadel, uninfluenced by time. They sleep while ships are flung into the nearby whirlpool like arrows through the air, while Hvergelmir, the roaring kettle, swallows them or spits them back. They were put to sleep by inserting a svefnthorn into each ear. Until the sleep thorns fall or are taken out, the seven men will slumber. They doze until Ragnarök, the day the gods will die.

The sleepers are metalsmiths; they rest surrounded by their own creations, weapons built for humans of supernatural size. They are cyclopes. Bands of Frisians and Danes tried to plunder the cavern, but when they touched the sleepers the thieves’ limbs withered and shrank.

They are the seven sons of Mimir, the guardian of the middle root of the World Tree. They are the four stags that graze off its branches: Dvalinn, the Dormant One; Dáinn, the Dead One; Duneyrr, Thundering in the Ear; and Duraþrór, the Snorer. Each son is a seasonal change felt by the tree each year; each ensures the seasons follow one another in their proper order. But when Mimer was slain in the wars between the god clans, the World Tree, having lost its caretaker, succumbed to the spell of time. It decays in crown and root; its deterioration is both natural and moral.

They have a sister, Nat, who takes care to see that they are shrouded in darkness at all times. Voices of other women, too, are heard in the tabernacle of sleep.

The Vita Ædwardi Regis records that on Easter Day, King Edward the Confessor sat at a banquet in Westminster surrounded by his bishops and nobles yet barely touched his dinner. He was immersed in thought. Suddenly, to the astonishment of all those present, he broke into “indecorous laughter.” Soon his face clouded over again and his nobles asked him the reasons first for his merriment and then for his sadness. Edward replied that he had been thanking God for the abundant food and drink on his table, when God sent him a vision. Edward saw—as if he were there himself—the seven sleepers, lying inside a cave in Mount Celion near Ephesus. Suddenly, all the sleepers flipped over onto their backs, from the right side to the left, and Edward laughed at the synchronized sight. But he soon realized what it meant: For as long as they lie on their left side, violence and misery will plague the world.

On hearing this, Earl Harold summoned a knight, a clerk, and a monk to visit the cavern of the sleepers. And so it was, just as Edward had seen. The Ephesians maintained that they heard from their grandfathers that the seven had always slept on their right; but when they entered the cave with the Englishmen, they were found to be lying on their left. It was an omen of what was to befall Christendom, on the eve of the First Crusade. By the end of the eleventh century, Ephesus was seized by the Seljuk Turks; it was wrested back by Byzantium, only to be conquered again a century later. “Whenever sorrow threatens, the Sleepers turn on their sides,” wrote the mythographer Sabine Baring-Gould.

They were drunks, according to Mark Twain. They stole forty-two bottles of an aged liquor from the grocer and drank them all. Their motto was “Procrastination is the thief of time.” They fell asleep in the cave with their neighbor’s dog Ketmehr. When they awoke—stark naked—they found that Ephesus had been radically transformed and all their relatives were dead. Strangers shut their doors on them in suspicion. When the men realized they had been asleep for two centuries, they exclaimed, “Behold, the jig is up—let us die.” Writes Twain, “The Seven-up did cease in Ephesus, for that the Seven that were up were down again, and departed and dead withal. And the names that be upon their tombs, even unto this time, are Johannes Smithianus, Trumps, Gift, High, and Low, Jack, and The Game. And with the sleepers lie also the bottles wherein were once the curious liquors; and upon them is writ, in ancient letters, such words as these—names of heathen gods of olden time, perchance: Rumpunch, Jinsling, Egnog. … I know it is true, because I have seen the cave myself.”

They are not three or seven but thirteen, records the medieval geographer Yaqut, a freed slave from Baghdad. In 632, ’Ubadah ibn al-Samit was sent by Abu Bakr on a proselytizing mission to Byzantium and visited the cave. An iron door was unlocked for him, and he was led inside the chamber. Thirteen men were lying on their backs, in gray cloaks and knee-high leather boots. Ibn al-Samit related, “We uncovered their faces, one after the other, and lo! in all was the complexion of healthful bloom. There was red blood in their cheeks; some had grey hair and some had black.” Each year, their caretakers would trim the sleepers’ nails, cut their mustaches, and stand them upright to shake the dust from their clothes. “When we came to the last of the men, we found that his head had been cut off with the stroke of a sword,” ibn al-Samit recalled, as recorded by Yaqut. “It was as though it had happened that very day.” The caretakers related that after a band of invaders seized the cave, one of them demanded to know the story of the bodies. Disbelieving it, he severed one of their heads as an experiment. Mujahid ibn Yazid, who visited ninety years after ibn al-Samit, recorded that the wound of the headless sleeper still bled.

Ali ibn Yahya, on his own visit to the cave, relates that he tried to smooth some rumpled hairs on one of the sleepers’ heads, but found they would not flatten. The astrologer Muhammad ibn Musa suspected a trick. Sent by the caliph al-Wathiq to investigate the condition of the sleepers, the caretaker at first refused to let him in, claiming that harm would befall him. Ibn Musa persevered, and entered the cavern to inspect the bodies, which he noted were preserved with unguents, aloes, myrrh, and camphor. He passed his hand over their chest and hair. “We had imagined they would have been living men, with the semblance of those who are dead; but behold these men are not of this sort,” the astrologer complained to the caretaker. They were not sleeping but embalmed. When ibn Musa resurfaced into the daylight, the caretaker served him lunch. The meal made the astrologer violently ill.

“Every morning, toward the dawn, very early, they come down from the sky and visit that place where they had slept, and then they go up again,” said an Alawite woman to an interviewer in the late 1990s. She lived near the cave at Tarsus, where al-Hakim set his play. They were seven brothers, the nephews of a cruel pharaoh who had forced them to toil without rest. They decided to flee, and meeting a shepherd, a dog, and a camel along the way, hid in a cave in the hills of Enculus, where they fell asleep. When they awoke, and realized that a crowd had gathered around the cave, they refused to leave it and prayed for help. God turned them into the stars of the Big Dipper. Reports circulate in Tarsus of a shaft of light emanating from the constellation down to the cave. “Once, on a summer night, I was sleeping on the roof,” related the woman, “and when I woke up I saw them—really or not—I saw them in the direction of the cave; there they came down. I do not really know how. But they say it’s like that, so they say. The constellation is like a coffee pot. If you stay until night I’ll show it to you.”

Others say the sleepers are the crew of the constellation Safina, or Argo Navis, the ship that hovers above the South Pole. Sailors once set their courses using the star that formed its rudder, Suhayl, or Canopus. A boy went exploring in the cave and never came out, the Alawite woman recalled. The police sealed the entrance so that others would not get lost.

“Was it a dream?” wrote Danilo Kiš in a short story from The Encyclopedia of the Dead. “Was it a dream, the daylight, the light that streamed in on him when the people moved away from the entrance to the cave, when a door opened up in the wall of the crowd standing round, and a new light appeared, incontestably divine, a forgotten light, far and near at once, the light of a sunlit day, the light of life and clear sight?”

It was Yamlikha who was chosen from among them to venture out for food. On the road leading to the city, he saw white banners written with God’s name. He rubbed his eyes with his hands. “Am I really awake?” This is how the story is told in an undated handwritten manuscript found in a cave in Tuyoq in Xinjiang province and now in the possession of the Finno-Ugrian Society. Yamlikha went to visit his old home, and found that several youths and an old man were living there. He greeted them, then informed them they were living in his house. The youths wanted to start a fight, but the old man restrained them and asked Yamlikha to tell his story. On hearing it, the old man laughed and lost consciousness. When he woke up, he said, “I am the son of your son; you are my grandfather.” He embraced Yamlikha and wept. Then the old man said, “I have a father who is very old, so old that he is only skin and bone. I have wrapped him in cotton and put him hanging in a litter. He is still alive.” He brought down the litter and, uncovering it, carefully unwrapped the ancient man from the cotton, “in the same way as a newborn child would separate for the first time from his mother.” The old man brought milk and put it to the mouth of the ancient, who drank the milk and opened his eyes. He looked at his father’s unwrinkled face and cried.

The Abbasid caliph al-Mu‘tasim, who reigned from 833 to 842, had heard the rumor of the people of the cave and sent an emissary to Byzantium to search for them. His ambassador returned instead with a bundle of ancient Greek manuscripts. As Louis Massignon relates in his history of les sept dormants, some say the envoy discovered the texts near the bodies of the sleepers themselves, hidden in the same dark crevices. A team of scholars in Baghdad was devoted to translating them into Arabic. Al-Mu‘tasim had inherited the project of preserving and translating Greek texts—long after they had been forgotten or destroyed in the West—from his predecessor, his half brother al-Ma’mun, who once met Aristotle in a dream. It was through the efforts of the Abbasids that much of the ancient knowledge was recovered. Via Baghdad, preserved in Arabic, Greek learning would later enter Europe, where it would be reclaimed as its own epistemological heritage.

In 448, the year that the questionable Bishop Stephen may have hired actors to pretend they had awakened—or the year when they really did resurrect—Theodosius issued an edict that all non-Christian books be burned. History forever repeats itself: Fearing the persecution of a Christian tyrant, pagan Greek texts fled to the hills.

They were men. They were books. They slept in caves.