There are a few different versions of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, which dates to around 250 AD. In the Catholic tradition, the story is of seven Christians persecuted by the Romans who took refuge in a cave near Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, where they were discovered asleep. The cave was sealed with them inside and still alive. Centuries later, a farmer discovered the cave and, presumably to his great surprise, opened it to find all seven men alive and well, and believing they’d only slept for a single day.
The legend is shared by Islam and a near identical version of the story appears in the Quran. In this the sleepers are persecuted for their faith and are said to have spent 309 years in the cave. During which time they had grown to be four metres tall. The Quran is silent on the exact whereabouts of the cave, but the stunning location of the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers near the ancient town of Chenini is dramatic enough to claim the right.
In the brown, barren landscapes close to Tataouine, the brilliant white of mosques can be seen on hillsides for miles around. As I turned off the main highway towards the modern village of Chenini and the ancient ruined Berber village of the same name, the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers could be seen from several kilometres away. A side road took me underneath the ancient village to the mosque, where I climbed a nearby hill to get a view. It was magnificent.
The landscapes here are undoubtably harsh, and life must be tough for its inhabitants, but it is a region of extraordinary beauty as well. I’d seen photos of this area, but they don’t really prepare you for the reality of it. I wandered back to the car and drove back to the equally dramatic ruined hilltop village of Chenini. The oldest parts of the village date to the 12th century, and most of them seemed to be crumbling back into the earth from which they were first moulded.
From a distance it’s not easy to pick out that there is a village built on the steep sides of the hill, everything is a uniform brown colour and blends seamlessly together. The site of the village was strategic and defensive, communities like Chenini would have been easy picking from raiding parties otherwise. I parked the car at the foot of the hill and walked upwards through the steep maze-like streets. From afar it’s easy to imagine the village is abandoned, but I came across a few of the 500 or so people still living there.
It was clear that renovation works were well under way in an attempt to attract more visitors, and there are places you can stay in the village. Quite frankly, it deserves to be far more popular than the grand total of zero tourists that I encountered the day I was there. It’s hardly a hidden gem – it’s big and sits on a hilltop – but that day it might as well have been invisible to modern tourism. I suppose I should have been grateful, it was fabulous exploring the ruins by myself.
I wandered down the hillside looking for somewhere to get a drink and maybe a snack, most things seemed to be closed, if they’d ever been open. Eventually I found a place on the road beneath the village serving mint tea and some pastries, both tooth achingly sweet. I watched the world not going by for half an hour and then hit the road towards another ancient Berber hill village, Douiret.