The Jerusalem Syndrome – When everyone thinks they're holy

Last month, as we all know, was Easter, a Christian celebration marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For such a celebration it is very popular amongst many people, regardless of their religion, to spend their Easter holidays at the place where it is said it all happened: Jerusalem.
In big groups people arrive and wander around the city, taking pictures, admiring the Temple Mount (called “Haram Al-Sharif), the Western Wall or simply let the interestingly holy feeling of the city wash over them.

It happens though, that the peaceful visit in Jerusalem takes a completely unexpected and surely entirely unwanted turn. It seems that the whole “holiness” of the city can suddenly turn someone from completely normal to a bed sheet-wearing self-proclaimed saint who has made it their mission to preach loudly in the streets of Jerusalem. A rather mortifying experience for all involved.

What's happening?

This behaviour, as crazy and made-up as it may sound, is actually a real existing phenomenon and is called the “Jerusalem Syndrome”. It is known as mental phenomeon which consists of a collection of religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other experiences which can be described as psychosis-like, and are triggered by the arrival and stay in Jerusalem. It's important to note that this is something different than the re-enactment of the Walk of the cross.

It could just end there, but this mental phenomenon is a lot more complex than first perceived. There are different types of it.
The first type refers to those people where it could be a bit more understandable, those who have already been diagnosed with a psychotic illness before their trip to the city. These people usually visit with a certain goal or mission already in their minds, often influenced by religious ideas. The fact that they already have been diagnosed with a mental illness before had been often used in the past to explain this syndrome, but later (and after many tests) it occurred to the doctors that not all of those who show the signs of the syndrome have been mentally ill before. This revelation leads to the second type of the syndrome.
The second type is not easily recognized and often over-looked, as it does not necessarily show itself as a mental illness but more as a rather anomalously big cultural obsession with Jerusalem. This type is often associated with and/or complicated by eccentric ideas already existing in the individuals mind.
The third type of the Jerusalem syndrome is the best known type and refers to individuals who previous to their visit to Jerusalem were mentally completely stable but became psychotic upon their arrival in the city.

What to look out for

If you plan a trip to Jerusalem in the future and now worry about getting the syndrome or anyone coming with you getting it (which is not so likely as there are only 100 tourists reported per year *) and you don't know how you could recognize it, here are the stages of type I and type II:

1.The Feelings: Anxiety, agitation, nervousness, tension and sometimes even aggression mark a sort of beginning stage.

2.The Desire to split: The individual shows the desire to split away from the group and walk the streets of Jerusalem alone. Most tourist guides are aware of the syndrome and if they notice someone wanting to leave the group without understandable reason, they advise the individual to go to an institution for psychiatric evaluation to check if the syndrome has set in and if it is the case then to avoid the next stages. It is important to know that without such an evaluation and the right kind of help the next stages are unavoidable and the syndrome won't go away by itself.

3.The Purification-Need: Now it has truly started. The individual starts feeling the need to be clean and pure, takes obsessively many showers and compulsively cuts their nails.

4.The Preparation for outside: Considering their own clothes as not pure enough, the individual strip bare naked and wrap themselves in a gown which is always white and which often looks suspiciously like their bed-linen. Their outfit now finished, shoes aren't on their mind. (Side-note: Some experience these stages faster and don't reach the hotel fast enough to get a decent bed-linen-gown, so they content themselves with walking around the airport completely naked, to the dismay of their fellow group members)

5.The Need to sing: The individual now develops the desire to shout out psalms or verses from the Bible or to sing hymns. It is here very important for the individual to do so very loudly, which luckily can warn the hotel personnel and tourist guides who will then take the necessary steps.

If no alarm bells have gone off after stage 5, then the next stage is inevitable.

6.The March: The Individual now needs a place which holds a lot of religious significance and proceeds to march to such a place (ex: Western wall, the Birth church, asf) while continuing to shout and sing.

7.The Sermon: The individual has now arrived at a holy place and starts to hold a sermon which is usually a plea to everyone to live a morally better and simpler life. As such sermons are usually not prepared, they come over very disjointed.

Is the Jerusalem Syndrome unique?

The Jerusalem Syndrome with its sudden psychotic character traits is not alone; many other places in the world have caused similar symptoms. There's for example the Paris Syndrome, where tourists experience acute delusions, or the Stendhal Syndrome, where tourists to Florence are completely overwhelmed by the works of art and have severe hallucination or confusion. It is quite possible for other Place Syndromes to exist, though those are less known.


*Source: Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre in Jerusalem, data from a span of 13 years (1980-1993) indicates that around 1200 tourists have been diagnosed with Jerusalem Syndrome.

More sources: Wikipedia “Jerusalem Syndrome”, a documentary about the Jerusalem Syndrome on the Radio “SWR 2”, an article on Wired.com

by Milena Hüschen

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