Jun 272013

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Today is one of several days celebrated as Seven Sleepers Day.  In Germany it is called Siebenschläfertag (I love those German mashed-together words), and it is believed that whatever the weather is on this day, it will remain so for seven weeks.  Apparently this forecast is about as accurate as Groundhog Day forecasts in the U.S. The story of the Seven Sleepers has many versions and is widespread throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds.  It has been told and retold repeatedly from ancient times to the present day.

The earliest Syriac version of the tale states that during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, around 250, seven young men were accused of being Christians. They were given some time to recant their faith, but chose instead to give their worldly goods to the poor and retire to a mountain cave to pray, where they fell asleep. The emperor, seeing that their attitude towards their faith had not changed, 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 state religion of the Roman Empire. At some later time—usually given as 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 for a single day, and sent one of their number to Ephesus to buy food, with instructions to be careful in case the Romans were to recognize him and seize him. Upon arriving in the city, this youth was astounded to find buildings with crosses attached. The townspeople for their part were amazed 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.

As the earliest versions of the legend spread from Ephesus, an early Christian catacomb came to be associated with it, attracting scores of pilgrims. On the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus (near modern Selçuk in Turkey), the cave 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. This cave is now a local tourist attraction.

The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Sarug (c. 450-521), which is itself derived from an earlier Greek source, now lost. An outline of this tale appears in De gloria martyrum (Glory of the Martyrs) by Gregory of Tours (538- 594), and in Paul the Deacon’s (720-799) History of the Lombards. The best known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine’s (c. 1230- 1298) “best-seller” Legenda sanctorum (Tales of the Saints).

The story of the Seven Sleepers is probably best known in the Muslim world.  It is told in the Qur’an (Surah 18, verse 9-26). The Qur’anic rendering of this story doesn’t state exactly the number of sleepers; the exact number is believed to be known to God alone. It also gives the number of years that they slept as 300 solar years (equivalent to 309 lunar years). Unlike the Christian story, the Islamic version includes mention of a dog who accompanied the youths into the cave, and was also asleep. But when people passed by the cave it looked as if the dog was just keeping watch at the entrance, making them afraid of seeing what is in the cave once they saw the dog. In Islam, these youths are referred to as “The People of the Cave.”

There are numerous retellings of the tale in early modern and modern literature.   John Donne’s (1572-1631) poem “The good-morrow” contains the lines

were we not wean’d till then?
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?”

Serbian writer Danilo Kiš retells the story of the Seven Sleepers in a short story, “The Legend of the Sleepers”, in his book The Encyclopedia of the Dead. Italian author Andrea Camilleri incorporates the story in his novel The Terracotta Dog. 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. The Seven Sleepers series by Gilbert Morris takes a modern approach to the story, in which seven teenagers must be awakened to fight evil in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world.

The Persian–Dutch writer Kader Abdolah gives his own spin on the Islamic version of the story in the 2000 book Spijkerschrift (English trans. 2006 “My Father’s Notebook”), based on the writer’s experience in the left-wing opposition to both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic. At the book’s end the narrator’s sister and fellow-activist escape from prison and together with other escaped political prisoners hide in a mountain cave in north Iran, where they would sleep until Iran is free of oppression.

The legend of the Seven Sleepers has given origin to a number of proverbial phrases: sjusovare or syvsover (or variants), in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, Siebenschläfer in German, zevenslaper in Dutch, hétalvó in Hungarian, sedmispá? in Czech, and a saith cysgadur in Welsh, all literally meaning a “seven sleeper,” that is, someone who sleeps late in the day. In some countries the word is also used to mean the hibernating rodent called the edible dormouse (see blog post for June 25).

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The game of Seven Sleepers was copyrighted by E.I. Horsman in 1891 and included The 24 Puzzle challenge within its directions.  It is a board game played on a board like a chess board but with special markings to denote the original positions of the pieces in the home rank.  The object of the game is to get one’s pieces across the board lined up in original position in one’s opponent’s rank whilst capturing the “sleepers” in the middle.  The game is surprisingly complex and requires considerable strategy to win.

Given that the sleepers were hungry when they awoke and sent one of their number to buy food, I thought a local Turkish recipe found at roadside food stalls would be suitable for the day. Gözleme are flaky pastry packets stuffed with a mix of feta cheese and spinach plus herbs and spices. Variants can be found throughout Turkey and Greece.  They can also be stuffed with ground lamb flavored with garlic, paprika, and cumin.  Once in a while you will come across them with both fillings in one.

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2 cups (250 g) plain flour, unbleached
2 cups (250 g) wholemeal flour
pinch of salt
vegetable oil

2 cups (450 g) grated feta cheese or
2 cups (200 g) finely chopped spinach leaves
½ cup (50 g) chopped fresh mint leaves
½ cup (50 g)chopped flat leaf parsley
½ cup (80 g) chopped green onion
½ cup (80 g) diced white onion
1 tsp (5 g) white pepper
1 tsp (5 g) allspice
1 tsp (5 g) dried oregano
1 tsp (5 g) dried sage


Sift the flours and salt and mix with 1 ½ cups (210 ml) of water in an electric mixer with a dough hook or knead by hand for at least ten minutes.

Keep adding more water a little at a time until you get a very pliable, elastic dough that is easy to knead, but not so watery that it is too sticky to handle.

Dust frequently with the extra flour.

Allow the dough to stand, covered, overnight (at least 10 hours).

When ready to cook, divide the dough into six round portions. Dust with flour.

Roll one of the rounds flat with a rolling pin on a flour-dusted surface, into a rectangle shape, as thinly as possible.

Brush on a little oil, then fold over into a square. Fold over twice more into a square. Repeat the dusting, rolling out to a large rectangle, folding, oiling, dusting process three more times.

Repeat the entire process for each of the six rounds

Take one of the folded dough squares and roll it out very thinly for the final time, into a large square. Sprinkle on the filling sparingly – – as you would for a pizza topping but on half of the square only.

Start with a layer of cheese. Mix the spinach, mint, green onion and parsley together in a bowl, and add some of this as the next layer. Mix together the white onion, spices, and dried herbs, and add some as a final topping.

Fold over the uncovered half of the square to cover the filling. Press down lightly all over.

Cook on a pre-heated oiled heavy skillet (cast iron if possible). Make sure the skillet is not too hot.  It takes about 10 minutes to cook everything through. Turn them often until the outside is golden and crisp.

Cut into smaller squares and serve with lemon wedges.

Yield 6.