News Store
Important notice to all NewStore users. The NewsStore service is now free! Please click here for more information. Help

The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 06/10/1995
Words: 1347
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Page: 7
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 peaceful.

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 Victoria.

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 Syndrome.

They are:

* 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 purpose.)

* 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 Christ.

"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 Rome.

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 Holy Land?

"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 Jewish Messiah.

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 Jerusalem Syndrome.

Back  Back to Search Results

Advertise with Us | Fairfax Digital Privacy Policy | Conditions of Use | Member Agreement
© 2017 Fairfax Digital Australia & New Zealand Ltd.