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TitleThe Haunted Wilderness
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2004
AuthorsNibley, Hugh W.
Book TitleNibley on the Timely and the Timeless
PublisherReligious Studies Center, Brigham Young University
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsAncient Near East; Cave; Hidden Books; Qumran; Seven Sleepers; Wilderness

Exactly at noon on the winter solstice of 1964, the writer stood at the entrance of an artificially extended cave at the place then called Raqim (now Sahab), a few miles south of Amman, with Rafiq Dajani, brother of the minister of antiquity for Jordan, who had just begun important ex­cavations on the spot and duly noted that the sun at that moment shone directly on the back wall of the cave, a feat impossible at any other time of the year. The ancient picture of a dog painted on the cave wall had dimly suggested to the local inhabitants and a few scholars in an earlier gener­ation the story of the dog who guarded the Cave of the Seven Sleepers— hundreds of caves claiming that title—but nobody took it very seriously. Beneath Byzantine stones, older ruins were coming to light, suggesting that the place may have been another Qumran, the settlement of early Christian or even Jewish sectaries of the desert; the region around was still all open country, mostly bare rocky ground. There it was, the begin­ning of an excavation that might turn up something exciting. Professor Dajani had read the article below in manuscript form and obligingly taken me for a visit to the place, where I took some pictures which were published in the Improvement Era.

Compare those pictures with what you find there today! Twelve years later I returned to the spot with a tour group in excited anticipation of the wonders I would now see laid bare. What we found was that the ex­cavations, far from being completed, had actually been covered up, all but the cave; on the spot was rising the concrete shell of a huge new mosque, and a large marble slab, before the cave, proclaimed in Arabic and English that this was the Cave o f the Seven Sleepers. The spot was being converted into a major Muslim shrine; our Christian Armenian guide was worried sick that there would be an incident, and at first hotly refused to stop the bus anywhere near the place. Naturally, I went straight for the cave and was met at the entrance by a venerable Mullah and his assistant who were selling candles; I said I wanted to see the holy dog, and they led me to the back of the cave where the wall was completely covered by a large old commode, through the dirty glass windows of which they pointed out some ancient brown bones and their prize—the actual jawbone of the holy dog; a relic had usurped the place of the picture. So there it was: what had been a few scattered ruins, lying deserted and completely ignored on the heath, was now being promoted as a booming cult center, rapidly foundering in the encroaching clutter o f suburban real estate enterprises. To a student of John Chrysostom nothing could be more instructive; it had taken just twelve years to set up an ancient and hopefully profitable center of pilgrimage. So you see, all sorts of things go on in the haunted desert, as the following article will show.