Friday 19 January 2018

Jerusalem Syndrome leaves hospitals on high alert for religious hysteria

Members of the Catholic clergy take part in a Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Members of the Catholic clergy take part in a Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Raf Sanchez

There is something about ancient Jerusalem, a city sacred to people of three faiths, that attracts - or perhaps even causes - a special kind of madness.

The hospitals are bracing themselves this Easter weekend for fresh cases of what has come to be known as Jerusalem Syndrome: a well-documented phenomenon in which foreign visitors suffer psychotic delusions that they are figures from the Bible or harbingers of the End of Days.

Previous examples include an Irish schoolteacher who came to a Jerusalem hospital convinced she was about to give birth to the baby Jesus when in fact she was not even pregnant; a Canadian tourist who believed he was the biblical strongman Sampson and tried to tear stone blocks out of the Wailing Wall. And an Austrian man who flew into a rage when hotel staff refused to prepare the the Last Supper for him.

Israel's health ministry records around 50 cases a year where a tourist's delusions are so strong that police or mental health professionals are forced to intervene. Many more incidents go undocumented in Jerusalem's Old City.

Evidence of the Jerusalem Syndrome dates back to medieval times. As JE Hanauer, an Anglican vicar, wrote in around 1870: "It is an odd fact that many Americans who arrive at Jerusalem are either lunatics or lose their mind thereafter."

The majority of those who are hospitalised suffered mental health problems in their own countries and came to Jerusalem deliberately on what they saw as a mission from God. Yet there are also some doctors have called 'Type III' cases: people with no history of mental illness who become overwhelmed by the city's religiosity and temporarily lose their minds.

Psychiatrists describe the sufferers' delusions as highly theatrical and very public. They will often rip hotel bed sheets into makeshift togas, deliver impromptu sermons in front of holy sites and go wailing through the streets.

"Their appearance is very dramatic and they use Jerusalem as a stage and deliberately go there to play out their act, which they entirely believe to be true," said Dr Moshe Kalian, the former district psychiatrist of Jerusalem and a leading authority on the syndrome.

Comparable phenomena have been found in other cities. Stendhal Syndrome describes the breakdowns that art-lovers sometimes suffer in Florence when visiting the Renaissance frescoes. Meanwhile Japanese tourists in Paris sometimes have manic episodes when they realise a city idealised as the most romantic place on earth contains all the rubbish, traffic and overcrowding of any other major urban area.

Neither condition, however, is as severe or as frequently observed as Jerusalem Syndrome.

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