By November 8, 2013 3 Comments

Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah

1385156_55633108Some of you may be familiar with Stendhal Syndrome, in which victims become overwhelmed by pieces of artwork in Florence, or Paris Syndrome, where mostly Japanese tourists experience delusions when in the French capital. But not so well known is Jerusalem Syndrome…. If you are thinking of visiting the Holy City then beware, as a trip to this sacred place can lead to the onset of psychosis and the belief that you are the Messiah…

The Syndrome affects between 50 to 100 tourists a year, most are Christians, but the phenomenon has also affected those from other religious denominations and backgrounds. There is even a peak season – around Easter and Christmas, where the reported cases surge upwards. It is debatable whether these people have had a prior mental illness that makes them more susceptible to the Syndrome or not. In 2000 Bar-El et al claimed that they had found the psychosis to be spontaneous and that the sufferers showed no prior signs of mental illness before arriving in the city. However, Kalian & Witzum disputed this, with  their investigation showing that almost all tourists were mentally ill before developing Jerusalem Syndrome. Israeli psychologist Yoram Bilu at the University of Chicago later confirmed Kalian & Witzum’s findings, and arguably it would make much more sense that you are more likely to develop psychosis if you have had, or are experiencing, mental psychosis.

The symptoms are clear and progressive. Firstly, signs of anxiousness and nervousness may appear, with a tension and agitation that is out of character. This leads on to a desire to split away from the tour group, travel companions, even friends or family. Although these symptoms might not raise any red flags, when the sufferer starts to develop a strong need to be clean and engages in obsessive behaviour with bathing and showering, most establishments in the sacred city begin to recognize that this is a case of the infamous Jerusalem Syndrome and get help immediately. If unchecked the sufferer then fashions a long toga like bed robe and begins quoting from the bible. The culmination of the syndrome is a march to one of the city´s holy places and the delivery of a topsy-turvy sermon on morality to the gathering crowds of bemused onlookers.

Help, however, is at hand. Herzog Hospital, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, deals with many of the cases of Jerusalem Syndrome, with sufferers being sent their way from the local tourist guides and hotel managers who recognize the symptoms and know this is the place that can help them the most. For decades the hospital has dealt with the cases of the syndrome and treatment usually involves allowing the patient to babble out all their psychosis until they show signs of improvement. However, if the patient turns violent then they are medicated and put under observation. Generally the symptoms subside after a few weeks and the person returns to a state of normality, and when they are out of Jerusalem the visions tend to stop on their own accord.

Just how long has this phenomenon existed? It was first described by Jerusalem psychiatrist Heinz Herman in the 1930s, but cases had previously been observed way back in the Middle Ages. Dominican theologian Felix Fabri described the syndrome in his itinerary and it was also recorded in the biography of Margery Kempe. Into the 19th century the cases became more common, mainly due to the large amount of literature written by visitors to Jerusalem at that time. The syndrome in most cases is harmless, but there have been some tragic exceptions. In 1969 an Australian tourist under the influence of the syndrome was so overawed that he set fire to the sacred islamist site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Needless to say it didn’t go down well with the local Islamist population and lead to rioting, which wasn’t helped by the tourists explanation that he did it as the site needed to be cleansed of abominations to prepare for the second coming of Christ. More recently an American tourist was hospitalized after roaming the city in a crazed manner whilst babbling about Christ, only to sustain serious injuries when he jumped off a wall to escape from the emergency room.

Is there any psychological explanation for this? Not yet, but the University of Philadelphia has conducted MRI scans on people who are experiencing moments of extreme religious fervour. They found that the frontal lobes, which usually calm people down, start to shut down whilst the limbic system, which is involved in emotional activity, cranks up a notch. This combination can lead to hallucinations and other side effects, which can become extreme when the frontal lobes are not working to reduce the increased emotions resonating from the limbic system.

Let’s just hope that if there really is a second coming then He better not manifest in Jerusalem as some concerned tour guide will call the doctors at Herzog hospital to have him ‘cured’ of his delusions. In fact, given the amount of patients who have entered the hospital over the last few years, there is always the small chance this may already be the case!

Rob HutchinsonAbout: Rob Hutchinson (46 Posts)

I've been teaching English in Chile for the last 4 years but studied Psychology at Manchester University. My interests include journalism, sports and I love to travel whenever possible.


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3 Comments on "Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah"

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  1. I find it amazing Rob! I didn’t know anything about this!

  2. Nick Major says:

    I also think this is quite amazing. I wonder if there may be some underlying chemical trigger that exists within the rocks there that causes this manifestation or could it be that the sheer presence in an area endorsed with huge amounts of biblical history might just tip the person over the edge – “seeing the light” perhaps?

  3. Joe Horn says:

    You must believe crazy to become crazy.

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