AFTER midnight at the Western Wall in Jerusalem you might find some people
who are slightly off the wall and churches in the Holy City where some
Christians turn crazy. These lost pilgrims may be suffering from what
psychiatrists refer to as the "Jerusalem Syndrome".
In many such cases, tourists bring with them a troubled or psychotic past and
then experience delusions of being some biblical character, such as John the
Baptist or Mary Magdalene.
A teacher from Denmark visited Israel five times in five years because he
said it was the only place where he could talk directly to God. He was
completely peaceful until one day he saw a vision and began speaking with what
he believed was the Virgin Mary, perched on the roof of the Mosque of Omar in
the Old City. A fight then erupted between the teacher and Muslims who were
angered at what they regarded as the blaspheming of a holy place. Eventually
police were called in to quell a potential riot.
Others take on the persona of unknown characters, such as the young woman
from Argentina who danced nude around the walls of the Old City, announcing she
was the "Queen of the Night". She said she had the power to make the desert
bloom from Jericho to Jerusalem and to persuade humanity to become more calm and
But the true syndrome is a phenomenon in which apparently sane people become
suddenly intoxicated on the ethers of historical holiness that seem to ooze from
the city's old stones. Such people then undergo strange character
transformations, most typically ending with a declaration that they must prepare
the way for the Messiah.
One of the most recent cases involved an Australian woman, aged 60, from
She was examined at the Kfar Shaul Hospital in Jerusalem, which is
responsible for treating tourists with mental disorders. Of a thorough study of
some 470 patients treated there, most had a history of psychiatric problems.
But doctors at the hospital believe the Australian woman may be one of only
42 cases of previously sane people succumbing to Jerusalem Syndrome. She and her
husband were on a visit to Israel this year, travelling with a tour group. When
she reached the Holy City, she suffered from anxiety and could not sleep. She
also declared that she wanted to be alone. The tour guide told her husband: "My
dear, Jerusalem Syndrome!"
The guide and the husband took the woman to Kfar Shaul Hospital where she
began babbling about being in the process of "delivering Jesus Christ in his
resurrection". She was in a confused state and appeared unable to speak
coherently. Her troubled husband told doctors his wife was completely sane and
had no history of psychological problems.
After a day at the hospital, the woman calmed down almost as quickly as she
had been seized by the syndrome, and was eventually released. She and her
husband then cut short their tour and returned to Australia.
Dr Carlos Barel, the chief psychiatrist of Jerusalem and the director of the
hospital, who first identified the Jerusalem Syndrome, believes the woman might
help unlock one of the greatest mental mysteries of the world. But, he adds, the
prospect of getting the woman to co-operate is likely to be as impossible as
with other such patients.
"The problem we have is that this real Jerusalem Syndrome passes after five
to seven days in all the cases," Dr Barel said.
"And then the patient returns to the same sane person, and later says: 'I
don't want to speak about this period. I behaved like a clown, like a drunkard.
I think it was a stupid thing, I don't want to speak about it because today I
think I behaved as a drunk or drug addict, and I had no power over my mind. But
the experience was mine. I don't feel this was something external to me'.
"For these reasons we have a lot of problems in our research to find out why
(these people suffer)."
While follow-up inquiries have proved difficult, doctors in Israel have been
able to identify seven common experiences in full-blown cases of Jerusalem
* Feelings of tension, nervousness and anxiety.
* A desire to be alone.
* Purification acts, with many cutting their nails, taking several showers or
baths a day, driven by a desire to continually cleanse their bodies.
* Appearing either nude or in special prepared clothes, particularly white
attire such as a toga. (Some steal the sheets from their hotel for this
* Singing religious songs in a very loud voice.
* Making a procession to a holy place, particularly those associated with the
life, and death, of Jesus Christ.
* Making a special ceremony at one of these shrines, often demanding that
mankind change its behaviour and become happier, to permit the return of Jesus
"One of the problems is that every tourist guide, agency, hotel, the police
and taxi drivers know of the syndrome, and if a tourist becomes anxious or says
he or she wants to be alone, they bring them here," Dr Barel said. "Today, we
don't see all the steps of the Jerusalem Syndrome because such people are taken
to the hospital from the beginning."
Despite such investigative difficulties, researchers have been able to
determine that, of the 42 genuine cases, there was only one Catholic, and one
Jew. The rest were Protestants.
Dr Barel said that in all such cases the patients had had strong religious
educations in their childhood. But why are most Protestants?
He believes Protestants are most likely to succumb to the syndrome because of
the nature of their prayers, which are aimed directly at an unfathomable God,
and his son Jesus Christ, whereas Catholics often sought help in achieving
salvation through a third party, even an earthly person such as a priest.
While Protestants related exclusively to Jesus as their one identifiable
religious figure, Catholics also attempted to connect with saints, the Virgin
Mary and many other characters. Jerusalem was also more important to Protestants
as a spiritual capital than it was for Catholics, who looked to the Pope in
Dr Barel believes the Protestant patients had also adopted an idealised image
of Jerusalem from the Bible, which did not match the reality - a city full of
hustle, bustle and tension, in a country often in danger of being at war.
He said the shock felt by such tourists caused them to have a psychotic
reaction, which was their way of forming a mental bridge between the dimly
imagined Jerusalem of the heavens and the earthly city of today.
In all of the 42 genuine cases, the doctors were also fascinated by the fact
that the patients did not experience delusions of being someone else. "You take
them, and say, 'Who are you?' and they say, 'I'm John Smith but you have
interrupted me during this very important ritual'," Dr Barel said. "They don't
have voices in their heads, they don't see strange things, and they describe
something opening in them, like a spring, and they have an imperative to pass
the message that humanity must change to allow for the return of Jesus Christ."
But why does it happen most notably in Jerusalem and not elsewhere in the
"You must take into consideration that for years Jerusalem has been a
magnet," Dr Barel said. "Jerusalem is a theatre, a place where every extremist
in the world, political and religious, feels that here they can make things or
feel things. Jerusalem is the direct contact with God."
And that can also sometimes make Jerusalem a very dangerous city. While many
of the patients at the hospital are harmless, one of them, an Australian
tourist, Denis Michael Rohan, who did have a history of mental illness, almost
caused another war in the Middle East.
In August 1969, Rohan, then aged 29, found his way into the locked El Asque
Mosque in Jerusalem, which, along with the neighbouring Dome of the Rock,
represents the third most holy site in the Muslim world. Once inside, he filled
a wooden pulpit with kerosene-soaked cotton, lit the rags with a match and
calmly walked out. Rohan, a member of a Protestant sect, then watched from a
distance, laughing as the mosque went up in flames.
In a confession to police later, he said he wanted to clear the Temple Mount,
the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples, of "abominations" to provoke
the Armageddon war, and to prepare the way for the second coming of Christ or a
In the aftermath, the Israeli Government had to use incredibly skilful
diplomacy to convince the Arab world that Jews had not been behind the arson,
amid calls by Islamic militants for a Holy War.
Rohan was eventually sent back to Australia where he spent the rest of his
life in a mental hospital and died under psychiatric care.
But the legacy of his flaming folly lives on. The Muslim extremists behind
the suicide bombing in Jerusalem in August, which killed five, and injured 100,
said the blast had been engineered to mark the anniversary of Rohan's torching
of one of the most sacred shrines in the Islamic world.
The nightmare for the Israeli authorities is an awareness that there are more
people like Rohan who will be drawn by the magnet of the Holy City, and
prepared to emulate his example, acting under the influence of what
psychiatrists regard as a unique, and almost incomprehensible, phenomenon: the