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A 19th century German painting of the Seven Sleepers

The Roman Martyrology mentions the Seven Sleepers of Ephesusmarker under the date of 27 June, as follows: "Commemoration of the seven Holy Sleeper of Ephesus, who, it is recounted, after undergoing martyrdom, rest in peace, awaiting the day of resurrection." The Byzantine Calendar commemorates them with feasts on 4 August and 22 October. They are also regarded as pious in Islam, and are known as "People of the Cave" (Ashab Al-Kahf).

A legend about them tells of the falling asleep of seven young men in a cave, who wake up after a great deal of time has passed. The basic outline of the tale appears in Gregory of Tours (b. 538 - d. 594), and in Paul the Deacon's (b. 720 - d. 799) History of the Lombards. The best-known version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. Their story also appears in the Qur'an (Surah 18, verse 9-26) [40674], which also includes the mention of an accompanying dog beside them.

The Legend

The outline of the story is that during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, around 250, seven young men were accused of Christianity. They were given some time to recant their faith, but instead gave their worldly goods to the poor and retired to a mountain to pray, where they fell asleep. The emperor, seeing that their attitude towards paganism had not improved, ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed.

Decius died in 251 and many years passed during which Christianity went from being persecuted to being the major religion of the Roman Empire. At some later time — usually, during the reign of Theodosius II (408 - 450) — the landowner decided to open up the sealed mouth of the cave, thinking to use it as a cattle pen. He opened it and found the sleepers inside. They awoke, imagining that they had slept but one day. One of their number returned to Ephesus. He was astounded to find buildings with crosses attached; the townspeople were astounded to find a man trying to spend old coins from the reign of Decius. The bishop was summoned to interview the sleepers; they told him their miracle story, and died praising God.

The career of the legend

The Cave of the Seven Sleepers, Ephesus, Turkey.
As the earliest versions of the legend spread from Ephesus, an early Christian catacomb came to be associated with it, attracting pilgrims. On the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus (near modern Selçukmarker in Turkeymarker), the 'Grotto' of the Seven Sleepers with ruins of the church built over it was excavated in 1927-28. The excavation brought to light several hundred graves which were dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls of the church and in the graves. The 'Grotto' is still shown to tourists.

Syriac Origins

The legend appeared in several Syriac sources before Gregory's lifetime. It was retold by Symeon Metaphrastes.

The Seven Sleepers form the subject of a homily in verse by the Edessamarker poet Jacob of Saruq ('Sarugh') (died 521), which was published in the Acta Sanctorum. Another 6th century version, in a Syrian manuscript in the British Museummarker (Cat. Syr. Mss, p. 1090), gives eight sleepers. There are considerable variations as to their names.

Another Syriac version is printed in Land’s Anecdota, iii. 87ff; see also Barhebraeus, Chron. eccles. i. 142ff., and cf Assemani, Bib. Or. i. 335ff.


The legend rapidly attained a wide diffusion throughout Christendom, popularized in the West by Gregory of Tours, in his late 6th century collection of miracles, De gloria martyrum (Glory of the Martyrs). Gregory says that he had the legend from “a certain Syrian,“.

In the 7th century, the myth gained an even wider audience when it found a mention in the Qur'an, in Sura 18, Al-Kahf, verse 9 to 14. See Islamic interpretation. According to Islamic belief, the "myth" has basis in reality, and the "7 sleepers" were pious men who experienced a miracle of God due to their piety and devotion to Tawhid (the Oneness of God).

In the following century, Paul the Deacon told the tale in his History of the Lombards (i.4) but gave it a different setting:
In the farthest boundaries of Germany toward the west-north-west, on the shore of the ocean itself, a cave is seen under a projecting rock, where for an unknown time seven men repose wrapped in a long sleep.

Their dress identifies them as Romans, according to Paul, and none of the local barbarians dare touch them.

During the period of the Crusades, bones from the sepulchres near Ephesus, identified as relics of the Seven Sleepers, were transported to Marseillemarker, France in a large stone coffin, which remained a trophy of the church of Saint Victoire, Marseille.

The Seven Sleepers were included in the Golden Legend compilation, the most popular book of the later Middle Ages, which fixed a precise date for their resurrection, AD 378, in the reign of Theodosius. (1)

Early modern literature

The myth had become proverbial in 16th century Protestant culture. The poet John Donne could ask, with a skeptical undertone,

'were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?' -John Donne, 'The good-morrow'.

Little is heard of the Seven Sleepers during the Enlightenment, but the legend revived with the coming of Romanticism. The Golden Legend may have been the source for retellings of the Seven Sleepers in Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-eater, in a poem by Goethe, Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle, H.G. Wells's The Sleeper Awakes. It also might have an influence on the motif of the 'king in the mountain'.

Modern literature appearances

The Seven Sleepers appear in two books of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series; Will Stanton awakens them in The Grey King, and in Silver on the Tree they ride in the last battle against the Dark, as prophesied:

By the pleasant lake the sleepers lie,

On Cadfan's Way where the kestrels call;

Though grim from the Grey King shadows fall,

Yet singing the golden harp shall guide

To break their sleep and bid them ride.

The Flight of the Eagles series[40675] by Gilbert Morris takes a modern approach to the legend, in which seven teenagers must be awakened to fight evil in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world.

Islamic interpretation

The Islamic version is related in Surah (Chapter) Al-Kahf (18, "The Cave"), of the Qur'an. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the Jews of Medina challenged him to tell them the story of the sleepers knowing that none of the Arabs knew about it. According to tradition, God then sent the angel Gabriel (or Jibreel) to reveal the story to him through Surah Al-Kahf. After hearing it from him, the Jews confirmed that he told the same story they knew.

Muhammad was challenged by the people of Makkah, who did not believe in his message and prophethood, by a question that the people of Makkah passed to him from the Jews. The Jews knew that Muhammad would only be able to tell the story if he was indeed a prophet. The Jews told the non-believers of Makkah to ask Muhammad "who are the youths who disappeared, and how many were they?". Muhammad did not answer. He told them that he would answer the next day, waiting for the answer to be revealed to him through Gebreil. The answer was revealed to Muhammad in a complete Surah named after the cave (Al-Kahf) of the seven sleepers. The Quran revealed the exact story that the Jews knew of, and it answered the questions (how many were the youths, and for how many years they had been missing)in a way similar to the legend they already knew. The Quran confirmed that they had slept for 309 years. The Quran however did not give an exact answer to how many there were. It mentioned that some people said that there are 3 or 5 or 7, in addition to one dog. The Jews also did not know whether there were 3 or 5 or 7, and were astonished when the Quran gave all the possiblities that had been suggested for the number of sleepers.

Mentioning the story in the Quran and the concurrent events that happened before revealing the story is claimed as evidence that the Quran was revealed by God and that it contains only the words of God and not those of Muhammad, since it contained information that Muhammad himself did not previously know.

The Qur'an states that the period of time these sleepers spent in the cave was three hundred years during which the calendar of their people was changed from solar to lunar and, as a result, the period of their sleep had increased to 309 (lunar) years. When they woke up, they had no idea they had slept for centuries and thought they had only slept a few hours. When one of them went to buy food, the coins he used to buy food were out of circulation and drew the attention of the town's people. After the story was widely known, the sleepers died. The Qur'an also mentions a dog among the sleepers, in the 18th verse of the 18th chapter, Surah Al-Kahf.

Thou wouldst have deemed them awake, whilst they were asleep, and We turned them on their right and on their left sides: their dog stretching forth his two fore-legs on the threshold: if thou hadst come up on to them, thou wouldst have certainly turned back from them in flight, and wouldst certainly have been filled with terror of them.
(Surah Al-Kahf, Qur'an: 18)

The ninth verse of Surah Al Kahf touches upon this group's extraordinary situation. As the narrative unfolds, it is seen that their experiences are of an unusual and metaphysical nature. Their entire lives are full of miraculous developments. The tenth verse tells us that those young people sought refuge in the cave from the existing oppressive system, which did not allow them to express their views, tell the truth, and call to Allah's religion. Thus, they distanced themselves from their society.

Do you consider that the Companions of the Cave and Ar-Raqim were one of the most remarkable of Our Signs?
When the young men took refuge in the cave and said: 'Our Lord, give us mercy directly from You and open the way for us to right guidance in our situation.
(Surah Al-Kahf, Qur'an: 9-10)

So We sealed their ears with sleep in the cave for a number of years.
Then We woke them up again so that we might see which of the two groups would better calculate the time they had stayed there.
(Surah Al-Kahf, Qur'an: 11-12)

The reason for this state of sleep was their surrender to fate and peace, because Allah, arranges everything for the benefit of the believers.

The Qur'an also states that the number of sleepers will be known only to God and a handful of people. A couple of estimates have been mentioned regarding their true number, as per popular opinion, probably by the time of Muhammed, but quickly rejected as mere conjectures. Such as, they were three, fourth being the dog or they were five, sixth being the dog, etc. However, when a final count of 'seven and their dog being the eighth' is mentioned, Muslims generally consider that an approval from God about their correct number, since it is not followed by an explicit rejection of the correctness of that number. Although the very next verse states that the knowledge of their correct number stays with God alone and a few select, it is taken as a reminder that despite the alleged revelation to Muhammad and a legendary mention throughout history, most people do not have any first-hand evidence to support any claims regarding their correct number, if not their very existence.

They will say: 'There were three of them, their dog being the fourth.'
They will say: 'There were five of them, their dog being the sixth,' guessing at the Unseen.
And they will say: 'There were seven of them, their dog being the eighth.'
Say: 'My Lord knows best their number.
Those who know about them are very few.'
So do not enter into any argument concerning them, except in relation to what is clearly known.
And do not seek the opinion of any of them regarding them.
(Surah Al-Kahf, Qur'an: 22)

Linguistic derivatives in Scandinavian, German and Hungarian

The legend of the seven sleepers has given origin to the word sjusovare/syvsover (literally seven-sleeper) in both Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, as in 'one of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus'. It has come to refer to someone who "sleeps hard and long". The word secondarily refers to a hibernating rodent, the edible dormouse.The word "Siebenschläfer" in German and "hétalvó" in Hungarian bear a meaning similar to the Scandinavian; they characterize someone who usually sleeps long, waking up later than what is considered necessary or proper. Edible dormouse in German is also Siebenschläfer.


  1. Martyrologium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)

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