Beware of the Jerusalem Syndrome

By Miri -

Many people believe that Palestine/Israel is an unsafe place to travel and a lot of foreign embassies and consulates caution about visiting a region that is seemingly always at the verge of a new eruption of violent conflict.
Most of the times locals will however tell you that it is completely save to travel here. But let me tell you once and for all, they are wrong! And this is because one of the biggest, and yet probably the most underrated danger lurking in the Holy Land is specifically targeting tourists: the Jerusalem Syndrome. 

"Since 1980, Jerusalem's psychiatrists have encountered an ever-increasing number of tourists who, upon arriving in Jerusalem, suffer psychotic decompensation. In view of the consistently high incidence of this phenomenon, it was decided to channel all such cases to one central facility — the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre — for psychological counselling, psychiatric intervention and, if deemed necessary, admission to hospital."
The Jerusalem Syndrome has been defined as "a delusive condition affecting some visitors to Jerusalem in which the sufferer identifies with a major figure from his or her religious background" or "a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem"
While similar cases could be documented in other important religious places, such as Mecca and Rome, none of those cities seem to have generated such a great number of people being affected.

So how do you detect whether you or your friend may be suffering from the Jerusalem Syndrome?
  •  faced with a holy site you feel the need to deliver a sermon
  • you suddenly feel the urge to wrap yourself in bed sheets or other stuff that looks like a toga
  • you start drizzling water over random strangers' heads and proclaim that you are John the Baptist
  • you are convinced that your name is Mary and you start inviting people to your son's birthday party in Bethlehem
  • you try to bring about Armageddon

Yes, this may sound funny, but it is actually not made up. "[O]ver the course of 13 years (1980-1993), 1200 tourists with severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems have been referred to the above named mental health care centre. Of these, 470 were admitted to hospital. On average, 100 such tourists are seen annually, 40 of them requiring admission to hospital."

The scarce studies about the Jerusalem Syndrome suggest that a majority of the people showing symptoms of the syndrome already had a history of mental disorders before arriving in Jerusalem. These people are categorised with Type I of Jerusalem Syndrome, "their motivation in coming to Israel is directly related to their mental condition and to the influence of religious ideas, often reaching delusional levels, compelling them to come to Jerusalem and do ‘something’ there."

Such was the case of a young US citizen who thought he was the biblical character of Samson. Already before he came to the Holy Land he had started to exercise and to do weightlifting as part of a rehabilitation programme. Eventually he travelled to Jerusalem in order to move a giant stone of the Western Wall which he thought was not in the right place. His actions obviously stirred quite a commotion and he was apprehended by police and placed into the above named mental health institution.

Type II of the syndrome concerns "people with mental disorders such as personality disorders or an obsession with a fixed idea, but who do not have a clear mental illness; their strange thoughts and ideas fall short of delusional or psychotic dimensions", i.e. these people generally do not require hospitalisation.

Type III of Jerusalem Syndrome is certainly the most interesting one, as it concerns people with no previous history of mental difficulties, but who, upon their arrival to Jerusalem become "acutely psychotic". Fortunately those people usually recover fairly spontaneously, and then, after leaving the country, apparently enjoy normality again.

So, in the case of Type III, can we blame the Eternal City itself? And why?

The fact that a majority of the people suffering from the Jerusalem Syndrome are Christians from Western countries may give us a hint. In the Western World religion has a relatively uncertain place, and especially people being brought up with strong beliefs may find it hard to accommodate themselves in their own largely secular societies. Coming to Jerusalem, a Westerner may be completely overwhelmed by the nearness to the centre of her/his belief, this deep well of meaning, which in turn may lead to experiences that these people cannot quite grasp. Coming to Jerusalem may trigger feelings of having finally reached "home", and that the solution to all the problems consisted in a return to this centre and thus to the roots of the religion, which will eventually bring about a return to purity and simplicity.

Many psychiatrist debate whether Jerusalem Syndrome can be really defined as a clinical syndrome and you are not likely to find it in a handbook of mental disorders. Whether or not it is true, for me personally, who defines herself as a Jewish agnostic, it suffices to take a look at Jerusalem's turbulent history of bloodshed and conflict, of miracles and wonders, to state "there's something fishy about this place". 

Homer Simpson, struck by the Jerusalem Syndrome


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