Visiting the Holy City can trigger a psychological reaction that takes some devout visitors back in time. By Diane Armstrong.

Jerusalem Syndrome in the Holy City

Crowds at the Western Wall  in Jerusalem.
Crowds at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
At the 10th Station of the Cross, on the Via Dolorosa just in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a young man in a long white robe, with bare feet and tangled hair, gives me a beatific smile as he rests his heavy wooden cross on the ground, wipes his sweating brow, blesses me and continues to trudge along the cobbled roadway. Still under the spell of this Christ-like figure, I pass two grey-haired women in biblical garb who hold up placards warning passers-by to repent as the Apocalypse is nigh. A little further on, a red-faced man staggers along hauling another huge cross.

It seems that the mystical aura of Jerusalem seeps into the souls of its visitors to such an extent that some become convinced that they are the reincarnation of Jesus, John the Baptist, Moses or the Virgin Mary. Some years ago, an Australian Christian who believed he was on a mission from God to clear the Temple Mount of its non-Christian buildings set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

A woman who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary walks to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre every day to sob at the altar of Golgotha, mourning the death of her son, Jesus Christ. Another Virgin Mary once invited everyone to her son Jesus’s birthday party in Bethlehem. And locals say there have been sightings of John the Baptists running around in animal skins, eager to baptise people.

The compulsive channelling of biblical figures is a phenomenon affecting several hundred visitors to the Holy City each year. Psychiatrists have called it Jerusalem syndrome – the symptoms include delusions, the donning of costumes such as white sheets, and delivering a sermon in a holy place, urging people to a better life. I’m told tour guides in Jerusalem watch out for agitated, tense people who fall behind the group and want to go off alone, but they reckon that once someone gets to the bedsheet stage, there’s no stopping them.

I sensed something unique in this ancient city that evokes powerful, sometimes uncontrollable emotions, not only among its residents but also its visitors. In ancient times, Jerusalem was regarded as the centre of the world, and in a spiritual sense, that’s what it remains for millions of worshippers all over the world, some of whom are driven to heights of ecstasy and hysteria rarely seen in any other city.

For Jews, the most sacred part of the city is the Western Wall, the only remaining part of the temple built by Solomon more than 2000 years ago. The plaza facing the wall has become an outdoor synagogue where worshippers pray and insert heartfelt messages into the crevices between the rough limestone slabs. On Fridays at sunset, the fervour here is infectious. Hundreds of Orthodox Jews in black jackets and wide-brimmed hats link arms and run down to the plaza, singing to welcome the Sabbath. There’s such an atmosphere of euphoria mixed with devotion that it’s hard not to be swept up by the ecstatic prayers of the worshippers and the joyous singing and dancing. Fathers lift their children onto their shoulders and young Israeli soldiers dance energetically with rifles slung over their shoulders. At the same time, on the women’s side of the plaza, a group of young Jewish women form a circle and begin to sing and dance. Some of the Christian pilgrims I’d seen earlier on the Via Dolorosa spontaneously join hands with them and they whirl around together in a joyous celebration that transcends religious and ethnic differences.

Visiting the Western Wall on a Friday is a powerful experience, and a tour of the tunnels beneath it is a spine-tingling journey through time. Excavated by archaeologists, this labyrinth of narrow twisting tunnels leads down to the original foundations of the city. Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, we descend through a maze of passageways, arches and bridges, past ancient cisterns, ritual baths and the remains of an original Herodian road, along whose paving stones Jesus may have walked. Every few metres, past and present collide, as devout women in headscarves hurry by clutching prayer books, and press themselves into recesses in the ancient wall to pray.

Jerusalem is where most of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are geographically intertwined, many within walking distance of each other, and each site evokes extreme emotions from its pilgrims. It makes for an emotionally charged atmosphere. We begin a walking tour from the top of the Mount of Olives, which is significant for all three religions. According to Jewish religious tradition, this is the place from which righteous souls will be resurrected when the Messiah comes, and cynical locals reckon that Russian oligarchs have been buying up plots here, presumably in the hope of being the first to be resurrected. This hilltop gives a spectacular view over the Old City whose golden limestone buildings are dominated by the gleaming Dome of the Rock.

The steep road leading down the mountainside passes one of the most evocative sites of Christianity, the Garden of Gethsemane, which is planted with rose bushes and watered by sobbing pilgrims. This road is lined with churches, chapels, convents and monasteries where pilgrims from all over the world come to worship, and we pass grey-robed monks from France, white-clad nuns from Spain and groups from Italy and Poland. Inside the sombre Grotto of Gethsemane chapel, an African priest in a scarlet cassock conducts Mass.

We come to the Armenian quarter and I learn that Armenia was the first nation to embrace Christianity and later adopted Jerusalem as its spiritual capital. There’s an exotic atmosphere in the Cathedral of St James, with its richly patterned carpets and ornate brass lamps suspended from the ceiling. Then, along the narrow arched alleyways of the Jewish quarter, men in long black coats stop to chat as they push babies in prams before disappearing into ancient doorways.

It’s no wonder that some people become delusional under the spell of this ancient city when every corner contains some evocative religious or historic site, such as Dormition Abbey, where the Virgin Mary reputedly died, and which includes the tomb of King David and the chamber where the Last Supper is thought to have taken place. These are less visually appealing than other important sites, but they are intellectually exciting, and I feel dazed by the history of where I’m standing.

At lunchtime we head for the crowded bazaar of the Muslim quarter, where shopkeepers try to lure us into their shops to buy woven rugs, colourful pottery, religious souvenirs or coffee and halva. We have eggplant and shashlik at a cafe whose genial owner tells us proudly that the vaulted ceiling and stone columns of his building date from when this section of the city formed part of the Cardo, the main thoroughfare of ancient Roman Jerusalem.
One of the best-kept secrets in Jerusalem is the view from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice, and as I gaze at the city spread beneath me, I am entranced by the sound of bells pealing and nuns’ soft voices in the convent below, singing Gregorian chants. On the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a procession of Ethiopian priests, striking black figures in hot pink soutanes, make their way down to the church and we follow them.
Inside the church, which stands on the site where it is believed Christ was crucified and buried, the atmosphere reaches fever pitch as hundreds of worshippers, some overcome by emotion and sobbing loudly, others infected by mass hysteria, jostle as they surge forward to stroke and kiss the rock where the cross once stood. The teachings of the Prince of Peace haven’t resulted in creating harmony among the Christian sects that are guardians of this sacred site – the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic and Armenian churches have fought so bitterly over control of the keys to the church that today a Muslim family opens and closes it.

On my last evening, as dusk falls, I watch the ancient Tower of David dissolve as images of Jerusalem’s long history leap from the walls and surround us in a sound and light show. As I gaze up at the wall, I recall the story of an American suffering from Jerusalem syndrome. He imagined he was Samson and decided that part of the Western Wall needed to be moved. He spent time bodybuilding and arrived with the intention of shifting it himself. After a skirmish with authorities, he landed in a psychiatric hospital, and when a staff member told the man he was not Samson, he smashed through a window and escaped. A quick-thinking nurse found him at a bus stop and praised his Samson-like strength. Placated, he returned to the hospital.
Another vision comes to mind – of Homer Simpson. In an episode of The Simpsons, called “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed”, a visit to Israel finds Homer another victim of the syndrome, believing himself to be the Messiah. He advocates for believers of different religions to unite, suggesting the founding of the “Chrismujews”.

Although I wasn’t affected in this way, Jerusalem did leave me with an irrational feeling that I’d fallen under a spell. Even before leaving, I couldn’t wait to return.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 15, 2015 as "Non-prophet sector".

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Diane Armstrong is an award-winning author and journalist.

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