Jerusalem Syndrome

Ynetnews (Israel) recently reported:

A 38-year old American tourist diagnosed as suffering from “Jerusalem Syndrome” jumped off a 13-feet walkway on Friday night at the Poria Hospital in Tiberias. He broke several ribs, one of which punctured a lung, and also smashed a vertebra in his back. The man was placed in the intensive care unit.
– Source: US tourist diagnosed with Jerusalem Syndrome jumps off building, Ynetnews, Israel, May 25, 2008

The so-called Jerusalem Syndrome is a

[u]sually temporary but sometimes permanent, the condition affects religious pilgrims – mostly Christian, but occasionally Jews – who begin to exhibit strange behavior while touring holy sites, sometimes proclaiming that they are ancient religious figures sent on a mission.

The phenomenon was identified in the 1930s by Dr. Heinz Herman, the father of Israeli psychiatry.
– Source: Preparing for the false prophets, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 4, 1999

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Sufferers usually believe they are Jesus, Moses, or the Virgin Mary, but several King Davids and at least one Mary Magdalene have also been recorded. While some sufferers arrive in Jerusalem with psychiatric conditions that are heightened (or triggered) by the city’s spiritual atmosphere, others have no history of mental problems, but are overcome by the urge to preach in public dressed in white robes – often bed sheets from their hotel.

The condition is usually temporary, affecting religious pilgrims – mostly Christian, but occasionally Jews – who begin to exhibit strange behavior while touring holy sites, sometimes proclaiming that they are ancient religious figures sent on a mission.
– Source: No sects, please, Jerusalem Post, Israel, May 20, 2004

In a May, 2004, article the Jerusalem Post reported on the apparent decline of the Syndrome. According to the article, in the approach to the new millennium some feared that Christian doomsday groups and sufferers of the Jerusalem Syndrome could spark religiously inspired violence in the city. Nothing happened, and later one researcher blamed the media for exaggerating the syndrome:

“The media exaggerated the syndrome. The issue was blown out of all proportions. A minimal number of tourists have been affected – it passes within a few days. It’s nothing,” says Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

“The perception was that thousands come down with this syndrome every year, [but] the embassy has encountered only three cases in 20 years, I have heard of about a dozen cases in two decades – it’s that rare,” says Parsons. “The Jews who get it are always Samson or David – strong characters. Christians are often Moses or Elijah, the witnesses. As soon as they’re back in their home setting, the symptoms disappear.”
– Source: No sects, please, Jerusalem Post, Israel, May 20, 2004

Ramon also noted that Islamic sects and various cults of Christianity had left the city:

While the influence of spiritual Islamic sects such as the Sufis has been overpowered by fanatical, often violent, Muslim groups and their affiliated terror cells, many of the Christian-affiliated cults appear to have drifted away from the city.

“There are no organized Christian cults left in Jerusalem, although there were all sorts of dreamers in the past. Israel’s tough visa policy since 2000 is hurting Christian institutions in the city, including churches,” Ramon notes.

Why have imported religious cults all but disappeared in the capital?

“The troubles of the past three and a half years have chased them away. They’re afraid to come to Isael,” says Parsons.
– Source: No sects, please, Jerusalem Post, Israel, May 20, 2004

How many people are affected?

Dr. Moshe Kalian, the district psychiatrist of Jerusalem, who has diagnosed many cases of Jerusalem syndrome, has estimated that the Jerusalem Syndrome affects up to 20 people a year.

It has provoked heated debates among doctors over what actually turns sufferers’ heads.

Dr Moshe Kalian, the district psychiatrist of Jerusalem, who has diagnosed many cases of Jerusalem syndrome, says: “In our opinion, Jerusalem is a kind of magnet for certain people who develop their ideas before they come and act out their behaviour once they are here.”

Cases run from people who start preaching in the streets of the city to more bizarre behaviour. Kalian says: “There are anecdotal cases like a tourist who was making a fuss in a hotel because he was giving orders to prepare the last supper. There was a lady who went to an emergency room, claimed she was having a miscarriage and when the doctors told her she was not pregnant at all, she said she came to Jerusalem to give birth to the new baby Jesus.”

Kalian says many people may have similar ideas, but don’t cause a disturbance that attracts the police: “They don’t bother anyone and nobody bothers them.”

Some people simply chant, sing or deliver sermons at holy sites. Others turn dangerous, as in the case in the case of Dennis Rohan, a deranged Australian Christian who set fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque in 1969.
– Source: A biblical experience, The Scotsman, UK, Jan. 10, 2005

Others mention higher numbers of those affected by the Syndrome. The maker of Jerusalem Syndrome, a 21-minute film posted on YouTube, says 100 people a year are affected.

Ron Peled, writing in Ynetnews, says, “There’s something in Jerusalem that makes some 150 tourists a year lose their minds.”

Possible Causes

Peled cites two possible causes for the Jerusalem Syndrome:

Several years ago I had the good fortune to meet Dr Carlos Yair Bar-el, formerly Jerusalem District head psychiatrist. As director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital, Bar-el encountered hair-raising stories that were funny and terrifying at the same time. He says that prior to the year 2000, the belief in the Messiah’s imminent arrival threatened to wreak havoc in the city.

Bar-el also noted that some of the victims of Jerusalem Syndrome claimed they were the Messiah, the devil, or characters from the Old or New Testament. The gap between the image of Jerusalem and the reality is apparently one of the syndrome’s major causes. The innocent pilgrim, expecting to find biblical Jerusalem, pure and quiet, encounters instead a bustling city, traffic jams, and history screaming from every synagogue, mosque, and church. Even before he has had a chance to assimilate it all (and even before he has seen a Betar soccer game), he is physically and mentally exhausted.

Another theory is that this is a latent poison that Jerusalem activates. It may be that the first person this happened to was King David himself, who danced and capered like a fool when the Ark of the Covenant came to Jerusalem, and whose wife Michal could not understand his behavior.
– Source: Crazy about Jerusalem, Ynetnews, Israel, June 18, 2007

Seven Stages

(Reuters) – A rare psychiatric disorder known as the Jerusalem Syndrome can make tourists in the holy city believe they are characters from the Bible.

In a 2000 article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Gregory Katz from the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre in Jerusalem described the seven clinical stages of the syndrome:

STAGE 1-The afflicted tourist becomes agitated, nervous and tense.

STAGE 2-The person declares a desire to split away from his or her group and tour Jerusalem alone. Katz warned tour guides to be aware of this symptom because after stage two, the progression is usually irreversible.

STAGE 3-The individual has the need to be clean and pure and will obsess about bathing and cutting fingernails and toenails.

STAGE 4-The person prepares a long, white, ankle-length, toga-like gown, often using a hotel sheet. Katz said this act stems from passages in the Bible that mention dressing in white.

STAGE 5-The person feels the need to shout or sing psalms, verses from the Bible or religious hymns.

STAGE 6-The person marches to one of Jerusalem’s holiest places, often along the Via Dolorosa or near the Western Wall.

STAGE 7-The psychotic traveler delivers a sermon at the holy place. Katz described the sermon as being: “very confused and based on an unrealistic plea to humankind to adopt a more wholesome, moral, simple way of life”.
– Source: Seven stages of the Jerusalem Syndrome psychosis, Reuters, Dec. 17, 2007

Article details

Category: Jerusalem Syndrome
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First published (or major update) on Monday, May 26, 2008.
Last updated on January 16, 2018.

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