The Ancient Story of Eshab-ı Kehf, or the Seven Sleepers


6 Minute

The Ancient Tale of Eshab-ı Kehf, or the Seven Sleepers

You may be familiar with the notion that all human stories are rooted in basic narratives with common patterns. This idea is supported by the fact that different cultures, which are not closely related today, share surprisingly similar stories and the beliefs. In fact, some narratives are attributed to an incredibly large portion of humanity, with people from all over the world claiming that the events described took place in their own homelands.

Despite originating from ancient Indian texts, the story of the Seven Sleepers is one of such narratives, with examples mirrored in Christianity and Islam, religions embraced by millions. There are dozens of places where the Seven Sleepers allegedly lived. Four of the places, exhibiting the most similar features to the narrative in sacred texts, are within the borders of Türkiye. Let’s delve into this ancient story before exploring these places. 


One of the World's Oldest Narratives

The first traces of the story of the Seven Sleepers can be found in one of the oldest texts in the world, the 200,000-couplet Indian epic Mahabarata. In a section of the epic, seven individuals, accompanied by a dog, turn their backs on the kingdom and the world to retreat into seclusion. Although this story has lost significance with the emergence of Protestantism, its most detailed form is found in the Christian narrative. This narrative recounts the persecution of those who converted to Christianity during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius. Ordered to renounce Christianity during this period, seven young people distribute all their wealth to the poor and settle in a cave for secluded worship. The emperor, realizing their steadfastness, closes the cave entrance and imprisons them inside.  

According to various versions of the story, the young men remain locked in the cave for 184 to 300 years, during which time Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire. The new owner of the cave opens the entrance only to find the seven men. Believing to have slept for only one day, despite the passing centuries, they decide that one of them should cautiously go into the city to get food. Upon entering the city, the young man is astonished to witness people freely invoking the name of Jesus. Townspeople are also equally surprised when he tries to make purchases with coins from the time of Decius. So a bishop visits the cave where the young people seemingly slept for centuries, to converse with them. Here the young men recount their miraculous story, pray to God, and pass away. 

Surah al-Kahf of the Holy Qur'an offers a simpler and more generalized account of this story. It includes claims about the number of young people staying in the cave, and it also states that the young people stayed in the cave for 309 years, yet only God knows the truth about these claims. Muslims know this narrative in the Qur’an as Eshab-ı Kehf, and the locations believed to be the cave of the Seven Sleepers are considered sacred pilgrimage sites.


Caves of the Seven Sleepers in Türkiye

Since the Christian narrative unfolds in a city called Ephesus, a cave near the ancient city of Ephesus in İzmir is recognized as the Cave of the Seven Sleepers. Ruins of a church built over the cave in the 5th or 6th century also contain inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers. If you visit the ancient city of Ephesus and wish to witness the real-world impacts of this story, you can explore the Cave of the Seven Sleepers at the foot of Panayır Mountain, accepted as the location where the story takes place in the Christian world. 

In the Islamic world, the cave of the Seven Sleepers is thought to be in Tarsus, an important religious center. Situated in an area known as Ziyaret Mountain and considered sacred, the cave is descended by a staircase of 15-20 steps, with 3 tunnels inside. The region has numerous ruins related to these and similar narratives, and artifacts unearthed from archaeological sites in the Tarsus region can be examined at the Tarsus Museum. You can also visit the St. Paul Memorial Museum in Tarsus, regarded as the birthplace of St. Paul, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ. 

Two other sites in Türkiye are believed to be the cave of the Seven Sleepers. One is located in the Lice district of Diyarbakır and is thought to be a cave in accordance with the depiction in the Holy Qu’ran. Another cave, believed to be the story’s setting, is in the Afşin district of Kahramanmaraş. 


To explore another intriguing story from the history of religions, thought to have given its name to Akdamar Island in Lake Van, Türkiye's largest lake and home to Türkiye's territory, you can read our article titled "The Touching Call that Gave Akdamar Its Name: 'Ah, Tamara!'".