text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

A peculiar state of body and soul threatens to overwhelm visitors to the holy city. It is easily curable, with an aeroplane ticket

western wall jerusalem.jpg

Jerusalem, deemed holy by three religions, abounds in historical and mythical landmarks which can overwhelm visitors with contemplation and awe. Like other sacred places, it invokes that peculiar feeling of rubbing shoulders with Eternity.

For Jews, there are the remains of the western wall of Jerusalem's Second Temple, also known as the Wailing Wall, the only proof that the temple ever existed. For Muslims, there is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on the site from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. For Christians, Jerusalem is bound up with the treasured biblical tale of Jesus Christ's last days, his passion and death on the cross, and his subsequent resurrection. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary and Via Dolorosa, the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified: these places may touch the heart of even the most hardened of atheists.

But, in Jerusalem, religious exultation can turn into a medical condition, where otherwise normal, healthy people become infected with a sudden madness. Ordinary tourists, who have come on holiday from London, Louisiana, or Lvov, unexpectedly transform into street preachers, laurel-crowned lyre-plucking Romans clad only in hotel bed sheets, or pilgrims hauling heavy wooden crosses who take their 10 minutes of glory extremely seriously. The hospitals in Jerusalem receive on average 20 such cases every week, but the number soars dramatically during major Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter.

This bizarre condition is known by psychiatrists as the Jerusalem Syndrome and was first identified in the 1930s by Dr Heinz Herman. Those afflicted believe that they are the incarnation of all sorts of biblical characters, with Jesus himself, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene topping the list hands down. Among the apostles, the most popular characters are Paul, Peter, and Matthew. John the Baptist is also something of a hit.

Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa

The symptoms last for about a week, or until the date of the return flight home, whichever comes first. Usually those afflicted by Jerusalem Syndrome remember nothing of the event and go back to their normal lives as dentists, lawyers, businessmen, and so on. However, the more serious cases require hospitalisation and medical treatment.

The Jerusalem police claim that those suffering from the syndrome are usually harmless, but all new cases are treated seriously, since in 1969 an Australian tourist, suddenly believing he was the Messiah, set the Al-Aqsa Mosque on fire, causing public unrest throughout the city.

Run of the mill preachers are the least disruptive, and they are easy to distinguish because they usually go around wrapped in bed sheets. They sometimes hire mules, which they ride through the gates into the Old City.

Protestants are most vulnerable to this strange disease, but there have been some reports of Catholic sufferers too. The various evangelical denominations, such as Pentecostalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mormons, and so on, usually reincarnate themselves as erudite preachers, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians tend to choose more mystical figures.

The Jerusalem Syndrome is not confined only to Jerusalem. To satisfy worshippers' desires to experience biblical events authentically, a tourist company in Israel has installed a wooden walkway in the Sea of Galilee two inches below the water's surface. This attraction gives any paying visitor the opportunity to literally walk on water.

A little further south, at Yardenit on the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised, hundreds of pilgrims go into a trance every day while immersing themselves in the river. The nearby tourist centre sells baptismal certificates with a dotted line to fill in your name, and another company turns a good profit by peddling small empty plastic bottles to collect water from the river.

Jordan River

Getting baptised in the Jordan 

According to a more radical theory, Jerusalem Syndrome has existed since biblical times, but was not then scientifically recognised. This theory claims that the most famous sufferer was, in fact, Jesus Christ himself. Since medical and public perceptions of insanity were different at that time from today, the apostles believed him and became infected. This theory does not, however, explain the initial source of the illness.

A psychiatrist in Jerusalem, who asked to remain anonymous, reveals that it is not always the positive biblical characters that people impersonate. "About 10 times a year we get Judas Iscariots, although we have not yet had a case of anyone ending up like the real Judas."

One of the more peculiar cases of Jerusalem Syndrome was a Pontius Pilate. "This was a Frenchman, who was brought to the hospital by the police because he had become aggressive. He was really hysterical, but his illness consisted mainly of a psychotic condition compelling him to wash his hands every five minutes. The interesting thing was that, every time he did, the water turned red. Perhaps he used some special soap."

The saddest case, according to the same psychiatrist, was that of Joseph, the Virgin Mary's husband. "It happened about five years ago," the doctor remembers. "Joseph arrived dressed in a sack, riding a goat. He was obviously at the end of his tether and kept saying: 'And just imagine, I haven't slept with that woman at all.'"


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