Grotto of the Seven Sleepers in Ephesus

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The Grotto of the Seven Sleepers in Ephesus (Yedi Uyurlar Mağarası) is a natural cave in the historic city of Ephesus (Efes). The ancient Byzantine period archaeological site comprises of a cave-church, necropolis on the north-east side of Mount Panayır Dağı. According to legend, this was the cave in which the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slept for 200 years and thus escaped the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Decius.

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The cave is named after the Persian word اصحاب کهف ("Ashāb-i Kahf") itself from the Arabic "aṣḥāb al kahf", "people of the cave", for Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a belief in Christian and Islamic tradition.

While relatively small in size compared to other caves in the region, it holds significance as the renowned Cave of the Seven Sleepers. The exact location of the Seven Sleepers' cave is not known, this Eshab-ı Kehf Cave is one of a number of other sites, including some in Turkey that claim to be the "Cave of Ashab Kahaf" or the "Cave of the Seven Sleepers".

According to this legend, the Christian emperor Theodosius II, during whose reign circa 401–450 CE the seven youths are thought to have woken up and then died peacefully, had the church built above the cave, which is now lies mostly in ruin.

Church and the Necropolis

circa 1278 CE

The cave-church was a domed structure with an apse and two arched niches on its side and tombs in all the walls, with a series of catacombs under the floor. The ceiling and walls of the church bear scant remains of relief ornaments and paintings. A nearby crack in the rock and a room with a barrel vault are believed to be the burial place of the "Seven Sleepers". In the surrounding area there are numerous grave sites of various types, wall graves, sarcophagi, burial chambers and mausoleums. The district was a place of pilgrimage in Byzantine times, with Christian pilgrims specifying in their wills to be buried there, perhaps in the hope of resurrection. On the walls are intercessions addressed to the seven young men.

The site identified as the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers currently exists as a dilapidated church intricately carved into the rock. Initially, the cave featured brick linings that simulated a constructed edifice. The church's side walls exhibit niches adorned with arched vaults, and towards the cave's depths, an apse is discernible. Notably, inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were discovered on the walls. The vacant recesses in the cave floor once served as burial sites, comprising a total of several hundred graves dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries CE in the cave and its vicinity.

Of particular significance to archaeologists was the discovery of a treasure trove, featuring a collection of terracotta lamps from the fourth and fifth century CE. The majority of these lamps were decorated with Christian symbols like crosses, while some depicted scenes from the Old Testament, such as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and prophet Daniel in the lion's den. Additionally, there were lamps illustrating everyday life, showcasing activities like fishing and theatrical performances. Notably, certain lamps portrayed scenes from pagan antiquity, featuring figures like Hercules, Zeus, and Aphrodite, as well as the facades of ancient temples.

The interpretation of these discoveries presents a complex puzzle. It remains unclear whether the Christian inhabitants of Ephesus retained pagan traditions or if pagans participated in ceremonies alongside Christians within the cave. While the answer remains elusive, the lamps undoubtedly reflect the coexistence of pagan traditions in fifth-century CE Ephesus.


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