First printed in Sunday Midday Nov 16  2008

One day, a young man woke up in a cave. Six of his friends were still sleeping beside him. All seven of them were monks. They had renounced all their worldly goods, given it to the poor and they had retired to this cave to pray. This cave was their refuge. They were being persecuted for their Christian beliefs by the king of their city, a Roman king.

At the outer rim of the cave, the young man found many goats tethered. They were not there the previous night. He was hungry. His friends would be too when they woke up. So he decided to go to the city and buy some bread. He put on his coat, for it was a bit chilly that morning, and stepped out of the cave.

As he made his way to the city, he noticed something strange. Everything had changed since the previous evening – the road, the gates, the houses outside the city walls and inside, the clothes people wore, the sound of their language. Everything was familiar yet strange. Most curious of all was the number of crucifixes he found along the way, atop gates and houses and palaces. Just the previous evening, any display of a Christian symbol on one’s house or one’s person was seen as an invitation to the wrath of the Roman emperor.

Finally, he reached a bakery. The shop looked similar but yet many things had changed. Even the baker looked different. He ordered the breads and then pulled out the copper coins he had in the pocket of his coat. The baker looked at the copper coins and said, “These are very old coins. No one uses them anymore.”

“But I bought some bread yesterday with the same coins,” replied the young man.

“Yesterday? I did not see you yesterday,” said the baker.

He looked at the coin closely. And then looked up. “These coins are at least two hundred years young. They belong to a Roman Emperor who used to burn Christians at the stake. The Emperor now is Christian.”

“What year is it?”

When the baker replied, the young man’s face paled. He realized that he and his friends had slept for two hundred years, almost, although it felt like one night to him. He took the baker and a few city dwellers and a few city officials to the cave. They remarked, “There was a stone boulder that covered the mouth of the cave. Legend has it the mouth was sealed by a Roman Emperor to lock in seven Christian monks who refused to abandon their fate despite severe persecution. We removed it just a few days ago, on orders of the king, so that it could be used as a pen for the royal goats.”

“That’s no legend,” said the young man. “I am one of the seven.” He then pointed to his six friends, who were still sleeping. On looking closer, he realized, that they were not sleeping. They were dead. But they looked as young as they did when they went to sleep. The young man realized his time had come too. He hugged the baker and the city folk and wept for the Lord had ensured he lived to see the day when his city, like him, had found God. He then lay down to sleep with his friends. This time he did not wake up.

The story of Seven Sleepers of Ephesus spread like fire across the Christian world. Before long, the cave became a pilgrim spot.

But the story was not known to the Arabs. And it is said that to test if Muhammad was truly the Prophet, some men asked him if he knew the story of the Sleepers in the Cave. To the surprise of all, the Prophet narrated the entire story which was told to him by the Angel Gabriel. He also said, “People are not sure if the number of sleepers were seven or five or three. And what many people do not know is that along with the sleepers was one dog.” For many this was proof that Muhammad was no ordinary man. He was that last of the Prophets.

The ruins of the church that stood there and the cave itself is still to be found in Turkey.