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Orthodox Christian pilgrims commemorate the path Jesus carried his cross on the day of his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem| © Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock
Orthodox Christian pilgrims commemorate the path Jesus carried his cross on the day of his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem| © Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock
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God-fearing or Delusional: What is Jerusalem Syndrome?

Picture of Ben Jakob
Updated: 19 June 2017

In June 2012, a wealthy Brazilian businessman with numerous investments and philanthropic ventures in Israel took his private yacht out alone and disappeared into the sea, never to be seen again. His disappearance was preceded by delusions of grandeur, intense paranoia and a profound obsession with the place he tried to make his home—Jerusalem. The strange case is one of many considered to be an example of an elusive yet well-documented psychological phenomenon called Jerusalem Syndrome.

Jerusalem Syndrome seems to predominantly affect tourists, especially devout Christians, who visit the city – holy to all three monotheistic faiths. The term encompasses a number of “Jerusalem-generated mental problems”, as one study describing the phenomena called it, in which seemingly normal people who visit the city suddenly begin to experience a form of Biblically-themed psychosis.

Common symptoms include: the need to be clean and pure; an unexplained need to scream verses from the Bible or sing religious hymns; and a strong urge to march towards one of Jerusalem’s holy places to deliver of a “sermon” laying out a religious vision. Another common symptom has people tearing up their hotel sheets and donning them like Biblical robes.

Make Jerusalem great again

Ranging from visions and voices to identification with religious figures, a study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry claimed that up to 40 people a year require hospitalization due to mental issues that fall under the syndrome’s broad definition.

One famous example is a German academic in his 40s who, after visiting the city, began a quest to reinstate a “primitive” form of Christianity. One fateful day he managed to enter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City where he suddenly went into a fit and began attacking the priest, accusing them of being idolaters and destroying statues and paintings at the site housing Jesus’ grave.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1941 as seen from its dome | Matson Photo Service, photographer, Wikipedia

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1941 as seen from its dome | Matson Photo Service/Wikipedia

Another is of a young American with serious body-image issues, who after entering a rigid bodybuilding routine began to think of himself as the present-day reincarnation of the Biblical strong man Samson. He was partially cured only after a doctor who found him wandering Israel told him he had completed his mission and could now return home.

Others run the risk of setting off the already volatile city, with one case of an ultra-religious South African Protestant hatching a scheme to destroy the Dome of the Rock—one of Islam’s most holy sites—as part of an attempt to bring about end of days and usher in Christ’s return.

The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov even claimed that his literary compatriot Nikolai Gogol suffered from the syndrome after visiting the city, eventually leading the genius author to starve himself to death. But its most famous victim is undoubtedly Homer Simpson, who succumbed to it while visiting the Holy Land with his family:

Jerusalem fever

The phenomena has become the subject of much debate, and though some academics question its validity, there are recorded examples going back as early as the Crusaders, with Simon Sebag Montefiore, a historian of the city, describing numerous cases of “a madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion” plaguing those visiting the walled city. According to him, the syndrome does not affect only pilgrims, but also occupying empires and kingdoms, eventually leading to their downfall.

Imagined Jerusalem Temple © Juan R. Cuadra/WikiCommons

Imagined Jerusalem Temple | © Juan R. Cuadra/WikiCommons

Initially defined as a form of hysteria called “Jerusalem fever” and “Jerusalem squabble poison”, it was first described by a psychiatrist in the 1930s. Though it is not considered a proper psychiatric disorder, research into the syndrome describes three main types:

1) The first afflicts people already diagnosed with psychiatric disorders which then seem to latch onto to Jerusalem, with the city and the need to visit it playing a part in a larger psychologically driven mission.

2) The second type usually affects people with undiagnosed issues who are visiting the city as part of a group and sees them develop religious delusions of grandeur. Like the case of fervent German, who, after being hospitalized and barred from the city for attacking the priests, continued to both work as an academic and hold his radical religious views, reportedly regretting only his inability to spread his gospel from Jerusalem itself.

3) The third and most famous type, which also has the least documented cases, has people with no previous history of mental illness experiencing psychotic episodes in the city that passes after they leave and tends not to reappear again.

One example cited by the study is of Swiss lawyer who arrived in Jerusalem with a group tour after spending a calm and uneventful week in Greece. Upon arriving the city he fell under prey to an inexplicable episode that saw him try to undertake a religious mission, attempting to don his hotel sheets in a toga-like form and head to one of the city’s religious sites, only to be fully cured at the end of the tour and continuing to Egypt as if nothing had ever happened.

Two Jerusalems

Orthodox Christian pilgrims commemorate the path Jesus carried his cross on the day of his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem| © Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock

Orthodox Christian pilgrims commemorate the path Jesus carried his cross on the day of his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem| © Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock

Researchers found that this type disappointingly effects Protestants, with only two known cases being the exception—and even then one was a Jewish man who was raised a devout Protestant.

“When people dream of Jerusalem, they do not see the modern, politically controversial Jerusalem, but rather the holy biblical and religious city,” the study said, claiming that all of the afflicted “Protestants came from what can be described as ‘ultra-religious families’.”

For these fundamentalist believers, Jerusalem assumes supreme significance and “such people possess an idealistic subconscious image of Jerusalem, the holy places and the life and death of Jesus,” the study said, stipulating that the cause was the attempt to bridge the gap between the real Jerusalem and the one of Biblical lore.

This is remarkably similar to another urban-based “illnesses” known as Paris Syndrome, which affects Japanese tourists who go into a state of shock or rage upon discovering that Paris is not the romantic ideal they were told, but rather a real and imperfect metropolis. Another is Stendhal Syndrome or Florence Syndrome—a form of Renaissance overdose, or culturally induced panic attack.

But don’t worry, your chances of being affected are slim to none: between 1980 and 1993 there were only 42 cases fitting the third and truly frightening type of manifestation. Most Israelis know it as the light depression people get after spending too much time in the city, and that’s why we have Tel Aviv.