Touring Israel in a group can be exciting. Rides to the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee in an air conditioned bus amidst tourists enthusiastically singing “Hava Nagillah”, stopping for Hummus at a local joint, buying souvenirs, such as holy water, amulets, blown glass trinkets, climbing Masada at dawn, among others.

But for a large majority, the most exciting venues are Jerusalem’s religious landmarks, such as the Kotel (Wailing Wall) and its underground tunnels, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Gardenof Gethsemane, Al Aksa Mosque, to name a few.

The Adventure Begins

A good guide often influences tourists to experience a feeling of déjà vu and certainty they have been there before. Some Christians report feeling JC’s pain as their sandals tread upon the Via Dolorosa. By the time they reach the church of the Holy Sepulcher, many burst into tears at the stone of anointing, where JC was allegedly anointed before burial. They stand in awe at the Aedicule, an enclosed chapel built over JC’s tomb and can’t fight back their tears.

For many people, Jerusalem, a place they have longed to visit since childhood, awakens feelings of deep religious devotion, regardless of the specific religion they practice. Many go into frantic prayer mode, swaying to and fro with their arms outstretched and some Christian pilgrims begin to scream hysterically on their way to the hill where JC was crucified, as it they were being lead to torture and death.

The Jerusalem Syndrome has struck again

The Jerusalem Syndrome is clinically described as a form of temporary hysteria, typically referred as Jerusalem Squabble Poison, triggered by a visit to Jerusalem that generates intense feelings of mystic elation. Its symptoms are manifested in extreme anxiety, nervousness and agitation, a need to split from the group and walk the streets of Jerusalem barefoot, chanting Psalms loudly and wearing a homemade made toga out of white sheets from their hotel. The psychosis is usually temporary and can be cured in a few weeks or after the patient returns home.

Although initially named by Hanz Herman in the 1930’s, it was observed during the Middle Ages, amidst Crusaders who claimed to embody the second resurrection of JC or to have heard the voice of Mary Magdalene.

Dr. Bar El from Kfar Shaul mental hospital has witnessed thousands of cases. Although some doctors claim the Jerusalem Syndrome affects people with latent mental disturbances, some disagree. After all, Jerusalem, cradle to three monotheistic religions invariably awakens feelings of awe and elation on its pilgrims, who have idealized Jerusalem beyond imagination and cannot accept that despite its mystic character, Jerusalem is a city much like any other.

Dr. Bar El recalls how one Protestant tourist, oblivious to pain, wore a crown of thorns on his head.  A hotel chef describes a tourist’s insistence that he cook the Last Supper.

Non-Affiliated Syndrome

The Jerusalem Syndrome does not affect Christian tourists exclusively, although for every Jew and Muslim affected there are 40 Protestants hospitalized. There’s no shortage of Jewish tourists sharing this temporary madness. On a visit to the City of David, across the street from Dung Gate, a young woman claimed to have been impregnated by the seed of King David and carry the future Messiah in her womb. She was treated at Kfar Shaul mental hospital but refused to go back home to Paris to avoid sabotaging her holy mission. Her parents had to fly to Israel to fetch her and, needless to say, she wasn’t even pregnant. Another tourist from South Africa claimed to have seen Elijah the Prophet, who allegedly advised him to stay in Jerusalem for the advent of the Redemption and warned him that his presence in the Holy City was pivotal to the unfolding of this event.

It is not uncommon for people struck by the Jerusalem Syndrome to abandon their homes, families and businesses and settle down in Jerusalem to live out of charity. One good looking 40 year old Jewish man, who had previously been a protagonist in Hollywood movies changed his life around when he disembarked in Jerusalem. Now he sleeps in bus stops around the country, eats at other people’s houses, wears a white turban and toga and refuses to seek employment for this would distract him from connecting to God. Like many other religious zealots, he is certain to communicate with the Creator and in Jerusalem, it’s a local call.

Incidentally, Muslims are much less inclined to be affected by the Jerusalem Syndrome, but it is widely known the temporary madness affects them upon visiting Mecca.

Tour guides have been carefully briefed on the subject, so that when a tour member disappears, it isn’t uncommon to discover he or she left their belongings behind, including money, passport, sandals and valuables. The group thus splits to search for the exiled pilgrim, usually finding him or her, near dehydration, barefoot and wearing a white toga and digging the ground to unearth holy artifacts.

Despite the danger of contracting the Jerusalem Syndrome, it is worthwhile to visit Jerusalem with Rest assured, you are in good hands, if Elijah the Prophet or Mary Magdalene don’t come to your rescue, your experienced tour guide will know what to do and Dr. Bar-El will reassure you he’s treated your symptoms before.