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Eshab-i Kehf –the Seven Sleepers- (the companions of cave) is a narrative illustrating the interaction of different cultures in a process dating from Paganism to Christianity and then to Islam. The incident of a very long sleep and re-awakening in a cave, which constitutes the essence of the parable, appears in a variety of religions and legends. They are described as 7 people in Christian depictions. Unlike the Christian depiction, a shepherd and a shepherd dog called Kitmis (or Al-Rakım) who attended the youth of fled are stated in Islamic depiction.
According to a very popular legend in Christian and the Islamic spheres during the Middle Age; in a city called Efsus or Yarpuz, a tyrant Roman Emperor, Dakyanus (Dakyus) gets people to worship himself and idols. (A.D. 250). At a time when the belief to the mythological God lost its power, these seven Christian youths called Yemliha, Mekselina, Mislina, Mernus, Sazenus, Tebernus and the Kefestetayus break away from being persecuted as they go against the tyrant's command by believing in one God and worshipping secretly. After Dakyanus learns, these youths pull away and come across with a faithful shepherd as themselves. The seven sleepers shelter in a cave that the shepherd knows and they fall asleep in there. The emperor's viziers find the cave. They can’t come in because they are scared, then they cover the entrance of the cave to keep the youths in.
Rumor has it that the Seven Sleepers stay asleep for 309 years. After they wake up during the time of Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II (AD 408-450), they send Yemliha to the city to buy bread. The people in the city suspects Yemliha who wants to shop with money from the time of Dakyanus and take him to the court. Yemliha tells his story in the court and takes the crowd to the cave. However, as his friends may be scared, he says he will go inside alone and disappears off the face of the earth. The Emperor then is impressed by the deep sense of experience these seven people live and orders to make sacred burial sites in the memory of them.
The Cave and Kulliye of the Seven Sleepers in Afsin is located on Bencilus Hill approximately 7 km away from the center, at north-west of Afsin. The entrance of the cave gives on to northwest. Inside area is about 100 m2. The ceiling is like a flat concrete structure ever seen in any caves. It has a unique feature. The ceiling is 140 cm in height in some places and 160-180 cm. in some others. The cave seems as two parts. There is some bedrock in places on the left side of the entrance; the gap among this bedrock is like a tunnel-shaped passageway. The right side of the cave is divided into two parts. The first part consisting of a ground floor and a flat roof is approximately 30 m2 and this place is recognized as where Eshab-ı Kehf fall asleep. The wall of the other part is 90-100 cm in places and gives the impression of an unfinished floor and has a dirt surface. Unlike the other parts, it has sinuous ceiling. It is a kind of stalactite and stalagmite. This part harbors water droplets dripping from the ceiling. This water accumulates in the well situated on right of the cave entrance and 120 cm in depth, 3.70 in diameter, constitutes a draw well known as Zam-Zam well.
The formation of the Kulliye began with the establishment of the Jesus Masjid in front of the Cave by order of Theodosius II, Byzantine Emperor, in AD 446. In the area of the cave a barracks and guesthouse dating back Byzantine era exist. Later, after the Turks stepped into Anatolia, Nusretuddin Hasan Bey, Maras Monarch of Anatolian Seljuk State, ordered to built the main structure of the Kulliye consisting of a ribat, a mosque and a han (inn). Then Alauddevl Bey, the ruler of the Dulkadir Beyliği (principality), had the Madrasah built in 1480-1492 and the Buk’a’ was built by the command of his father Suleyman Bey. Shams Hatun, Alauddevle's wife, got Kubbetu’s Serif (Women Masjid) to built in 1500. Finally, the establishment of the Kulliye was completed with the construction of Minnet Celebi Masjid (Kaba Naib Masjid) today knows as Pasa Cardagi (Pahsa Pergola) completed during the time of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1531.
In ancient sources, it is stated that the Ribat was built on the area where the barracks and the guesthouse was built during the Byzantine period, and the mosque was built on the remains of Jesus Masjid by Nusretuddin Hasan Bey at the behest of the Seljuk Sultan Izzeddin Keykavus, which was in ruins on the date when the Turks came to Anatolia. The remains of these structures of Byzantine era, made of mainly reused marble, were preserved by Anatolian Seljuks and used for decorative purposes, particularly on the Mosque, on the inner and outer parts which forms the structure of the Kulliye. The church’s column headers located in the mosques are made and Corinthian and ion order. In addition, it has a column heading, three consoles and decorations in Composite order. There exists another mihrabiye in the southern wall of Jesus Masjid located at Westside of Harim and next to the door opening into the cave. This mihrabiye is decorated with acanthus motifs and made up of reused marble. Having placed a reused marble mihrabiye into the lower section of the niche of Eshab-i Kehf Mosque’s mihrab by Seljuk architects, a form of two nested niche came into existence. This historical stone, one of the mihrabiyes of the church having been in use from 5th century to the end of 10th century, has an oyster grooved arch molding and the pillars of the mihrabiye is grooved, as well. In addition, the pillar’s headings and arch molding is decorated with acanthus motifs. The mihrabiye reaching the present day is known as “baptism stone” among the people.
The seven sleepers having great importance in terms of religious tourism and commonly known by various religions and cultures is important for providing intercultural dialogue and tolerance. Eshab-i Kehf Kulliye in Afsin along with Jesus Masjid built in AD 446 is one of most important pilgrimage to visit for the people all over the world. From the middle of the 5th century AD, on this place which is meeting point for different religions and civilizations with a church, barracks, guesthouse, ribat, mosque, inn and Buk’a which were built during Byzantine,Seljuk, Dulkadirli and Ottoman Eras, each civilization has shown a favor to this unique place within their beliefs, and has revived this sacred space by adding their own structures.
It is pointed that the mihrab in the northern wall of the cave may be the one referred in the Qur'an. In a study conducted on a sample taken from the mortar of the mihrab, the lower crescent part of the mihrab consists of a special mortar known as Khorasan mortar composed of sand, clay, lime, and egg white so the mihrab has at least 1500 years of history and the direction of which faces to Jerusalem, the kiblah of the Christians in that period.
Having placed a reused marble mihrabiye into the lower section of the niche of Eshab-i Kehf Mosque’s mihrab by Seljuk architects, a form of two nested niche came into existence. This historical stone which is one of the mihrabiyes of the church having been in use from 5th century to the end of 10th century, has an oyster grooved arch molding and the pillars of the mihrabiye is grooved, as well. In addition, the pillar’s headings and arch moulding is decorated with acanthus motifs. As the mihrap of this Seljuk Mosque nested with the mihrabiye of a Church existing before the mosque which was at the disposal of Christians more than seven centuries, it is clearly understood that the occurrence of Seven Sleepers was known and considered important in other celestial religions besides Islam.The Ribat crown gate, which is the first structure of Eshab-ı Kehf Kulliye built by the Turks in the first quarter of 13th century and the first examples of Hanikah (zawiya) is one of the first time crown gate of the Seljuk being completely formed with geometric decorations. After the crown gate receives sunlight, at certain times (especially prayer times), the appearance of the three silhouettes of a dervish praying, a man and a woman performing prayer at the different points of the arch molding emerges as outstanding architectural techniques created by benefiting from astronomy.
Criterion (iii): When considered the structures consisting of The Kulliye of Eshab-i Kehf in Afsin as a whole, we see it bears traces of all monotheistic religions. Moreover, when evaluated these structures separately, even if they were built in different centuries by different civilizations, they appear to be synthesized in a line with each other. The cross relief on the stone considered to belong to Jesus Masjid built in 446 situating under the crown gate of the Ribat built during Seljuk Era in 1215, is one of the most beautiful examples of mosaic architecture belonging to different civilizations in the Kulliye of Eshab-i Kehf
Criterion (vi): This narrative, which is about the seven people who hide in a cave to not be sacrificed because of their belief in heavenly religion during Paganism period, and wake up after hundreds of years sleep to an era when Christianity has been accepted as the official religion, is stated as one of the evidences of Bas-ü Badel mevt (resurrection) in Quran and other celestial books. The Roman period when they fall asleep and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) period when they awake, the religion has influenced the communities considerably in terms of culture and sociology and this interaction is inherited to the present day. Within the process in which the incident happens, thousands of people from different religion have visited this primeval place and gathered around the universal message the Companions of the Cave give.
In previous centuries, Christians believed that the Seven Sleeper woke up on June 27 (according to another source it’s July 27) so, as of that date it would rain for a week and that would be a fruitful week In addition, during this time they arranged religious ceremonies in the Jesus Masjid locating in front of the Cave of Eshab-i Kehf in Afsin. Along with the Christians began to pray in Jesus Masjid built in 5th century in front of the Cave of Eshab-i Kehf in Afsin, the Muslims began to pray in a mosque added next to the Church in 12th century, thusly, both Christians and Muslims have worshiped together by sharing the religious value of this sacred place. Therefore, these facilities created in front of the Cave, are the most beautiful examples of sharing human values, and the Cave have gained the identity of being a place granting of universal message, where civilizations come together on a common ground.
Integrity: The surviving parts of the Kulliye, which was constructed in nearly 1085 years, are the Madrasa, inn, the Ribat, the Mosque and Pasa Cardagi (Pahsa Pergola). The mosque was built on the ruins of the destroyed Jesus Masjid, reused materials were used in the construction. From the date when Eshab-i Kehf Kulliye was built until 1909, during the periods of Anatolian Seljuk, Dulkadirli Principality and Ottoman Empire, many foundations were established to cover the maintenance and repair costs of structures of the Kulliye and meet the needs of visitors. So much so that, in Anatolia, there are limited number of places devoted for nearly 700 years having such early foundations. This monument has been registered on the national inventory by the decision of the regional council for protection dated October 31, 2006 numbered 2147. The responsibility of maintenance is incumbent on the General Directorate of Foundations which has the ownership of the monument.
Authenticity: The Kulliye built with religious purposes for the memory of Eshab-i Kehf (the companions of Cave), is still a place of worship open to visitors for the same purpose. Built quite solidly, the Ribat is on area facing the valley and plain, was restored with the Madrasa by the General Directorate of Foundations in 1963. The monument was restored lastly in 1989, woodwork was renovated, and interior walls were plastered and whitewashed. The Madrasa is not in use today, currently serving as guesthouse to the visitors from distant places. Pasa Çardağı was renovated in 1969-70, the inn was restored in 2003 and they are in good condition in terms of structure. However, the lack of a good drainage system of the inn causes some problems arising from incomplete grouting in some areas. The original interior structure of the mosque which the most remarkable structure of the Kulliye is changed after restorations, thus the restoration should be reconsidered.
The Cave of Eshab-i Kehf has a feature appropriated all around the world and many people argue that the original Cave of Seven Sleepers is within the borders of their cities. Four of those 33 cities are in Turkey: Afsin, Seljuk (Ephesus Seven Sleepers), Lice and Tarsus. The other cities in the world are; Cinanu’l verd somewhere around Cordoba, Spain, Belkam around Damascus, Baghdad and Yemen.
The key feature separating the Cave from other Caves of Eshab-i Kehf is that it exactly conforms with the tariff in the verse 17 of Surat al-Kahf in Holy Quran stating that the direction of the Cave faces to Northwest. In the verse 21 of Surah al-Kahf (The Cave); in the process friends, god willing, awakening after years, it is stated that a masjid (a church) was built on or next to the Cave by people who witnessed this incident. According to Christian sources, this church was built by the order of Theodoius II, the Byzantine Emperor, between the years of 408-450, and Eshab-i Kehf woke in the 38th years of II. Theodosius’ reign, so there appears the church to have been built around in AD 446.
The issue on the location of the cave rises in Turkey between Afsin and Tarsus. To prove that the Cave of Seven Sleepers Association had a committee of scientists prepared a report and it was concluded with discovery proceedings taken in the local courts.