Desperately seeking the Jerusalem Syndrome
One of the basic rules of journalism is to “be in the right place at the right time.” This is not easy to do when the story you want to cover happens only 10 or 12 times a year, at any one of dozens of locations indoors or outdoors and at any hour of the day or night. The odds were against me massively, but why should I let that get in the way when the story was as interesting as the Jerusalem Syndrome described in my feature “Come to Jerusalem, see the Messiah“?
Only about a dozen Jerusalem tourists per year suddenly get agitated, imagine themselves to be characters from the Bible, fashion makeshift togas out of hotel sheets and go out to holy sites to recite the Psalms, sing hymns or harangue passers-by to repent. There are enough anecdotes around to write a colourful story about the syndrome, but I wanted to get closer to the story. Maybe even see a syndrome sufferer first hand.
The sites that trigger the disorder were my first stop. I began in the narrow streets of the ancient city– a square kilometre crammed with some of the world’s holiest sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians.First I checked out a series of hostels that overlook the Arab market. Most of them had just one big room with guests from around the world spread out in 10 or so bunk beds. In the alley below, tourists haggled with shopkeepers for the best price on a hookah or a set of carved wooden camels.
Every hostel owner knew what I was looking for. Yes, they’d heard about tourists who were overwhelmed by Jerusalem’s intense religious atmosphere. Some had even witnessed a psychotic episode or two over the years. But there had been no crazy tourists recently, they said. They recommended I come back at Christmas or Easter.
A few hundred metres away, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an Israeli police officer watched tour groups funnel into the hall believed to hold Jesus’s tomb. In the courtyard out front, Christian tourists walked past a large wooden cross leaning against a stone wall. The Muslim call to prayer echoed through the cobblestone streets. The officer, who asked that I not mention his name, told me that Easter pilgrims carry the cross along the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus walked to his crucifixion.
The policeman had been stationed at the church for years and seemed to know more about its history than any tour guide. He told me how a few times he had dragged people from the church, those who had “lost their minds” after being overwhelmed by the holiness of the resurrection site.
He spoke with authority about the Jerusalem Syndrome, though much of what he said contradicted the facts and statistics I’d heard from Jerusalem psychiatrists. When I took out my notepad to write down some comments, he abruptly ended our conversation. He pointed me in the direction of the Western Wall and said I might have better luck there.
The march to the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple and one of Judaism’s holiest sites, took me through all fours quarters of the walled city – Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish.
I sat in front of the exposed part of the Western Wall– which is about 50 metres (165 feet) long and about 15 metres (50 feet) high—and watched hundreds of worshipers congregate. Tourists pushed tiny prayer notes into the cracks between the stones.
Just last week, the site apparently proved so overwhelming for a young woman in her 20s that she stripped naked and lay on the group, muttering “the holy temple, the holy temple” and “it is all from God” while pointing at the sky. She was later sent to hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
There was no repeat performance of that event as I sat observing the crowds at the Western Wall that day. I returned to different parts of the Old City several more times, and still never found myself in the right spot at the right time. But spending so much time in this unique conglomeration of holy sites, observing the pilgrims and chatting with the shopkeepers and police who encounter them every day, I understood how the atmosphere and intensity within the city walls could be overwhelming.