Write about intriguing psychological phenomena.

Information About the Jerusalem Syndrome

Information About the Jerusalem Syndrome

Jerusalem syndrome is a one-of-its-kind psychological disorder observed among some tourists upon arrival to the city of Jerusalem. Learn more about this psychological marvel, and about its truth, through this PsycholoGenie article.
Rujuta Patil
Paris Syndrome

It is a similar psychological disorder experienced by some tourists visiting Paris and other areas of Europe. Symptoms include severe delusions, hallucinations, derealization, and anxiety.

How much are we affected by something? By a place as tourists, for example? 'A lot', or at times 'not much'. We do have good memories of some locations we visit, but we get back to our lives soon as we get back to our hometown.

What if... we HAVE to get back to our native places ASAP to treat a psychological disorder that we developed during a visit to some tourist destination? Maybe getting away from that location is the most effective treatment!

Something like this may happen to some individuals going to the city of Jerusalem, in Israel. This holy place, lying on the western side of the Dead Sea, has been home to Christian, Jew, and Muslim pilgrims since ages. And, this space is also known to exhibit the Jerusalem syndrome.

Definition of Jerusalem Syndrome
A syndrome can be defined as a group of symptoms that happen together, and go on to characterize a particular abnormality or condition' Jerusalem syndrome refers to the triggering of a group of psychological disorders (like delusion or psychopathy) upon visiting the city of Jerusalem.

These mental phenomena may include ideas showing obsession, psychosis, or hallucinations like identification with a religious character, etc. It does not affect every tourist though. Also, the syndrome is not religion-specific; it has affected everyone - Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Information About the Jerusalem Syndrome
This syndrome can be traced back to a paper published by the British Journal of Psychiatry in January 2000, where Bar-El, Rimona Durst, Gregory Katz, Josef Zislin, Ziva Strauss, and Haim Y. Knobler had reported about it in an article. Though not a thorough research study, it included case studies. It said that the psychiatrists in Jerusalem were expecting more number of tourists who would suffer from psychotic decompensation upon arrival in the city.

The syndrome is understood to be a religion-related psychiatric disorder. According to some, the exceptional status of Jerusalem as a holy place in many religions is believed to influence the nature of the psychotic experiences among patients.

Types of Jerusalem Syndromes
There are three types and few subtypes of this syndrome. As it is the most interesting of all, let us consider the third type first.

Type III: With No Previous History
This category concerns those cases which do not have any previous history of mental disorders. Nevertheless, these individuals come under attack from some kind of psychotic illness while in Jerusalem. They also recover from it quite soon, especially on going away from Jerusalem, and experience a state of complete cure when they return to their respective countries. There were comparatively less cases observed of this type than the other two types. The following conditions are noted in these individuals:

1. No previous psychiatric illness; in fact, they are completely healthy.

2. These persons come simply to visit Jerusalem as 'tourists; generally are accompanied with a large group of family or friends. They do not arrive with some agenda in mind.

3. They begin to develop peculiar psychotic reactions. This happen in the following characteristic ways, step-by-step:

  •  They feel anxiety, nervousness, tension, agitation, and such other reactions at first.
  •  They feel like separating from the group and touring the city of Jerusalem alone. (Some tourist guides, on coming across such a person, inform the institution for psychiatric diagnosis)
  •  They always wish to be clean and pure. Wish to take frequent baths and showers, and cutting the fingernails and toenails often is also a part of an obsession they develop.
  •  Wearing a white toga-like gown (long and ankle-length), which is made of bed linen in a hotel, is the next stage.
  • These individuals feel like singing and shouting out loud psalms, religious hymns, verses (like from the Bible). This stage acts like a warning to the hotel staff, to inform and arrange for the treatment of such persons.
  •  They conduct a march (or procession) to some holy place in Jerusalem.
  •  Delivering a 'sermon' at some sacred place, is the last stage. This sermon usually calls for everyone to adopt a simpler, moral life. 

Type I: Superimposed on Previous Illness
In this type, individuals were already known to have been affected with a psychotic disorder before their arrival in Jerusalem. Here, their state of mind is under heavy impact from religious ideas; also, in some case, being the reason of their visit. Here below are three subtypes:

i) Identification with Religious Characters: Visitors begin to identify themselves to be some significant religious character from the Old or New Testament. An American schizophrenic patient, in a rehabilitation program in a U.S. hospital worked a lot on bodybuilding through exercise and weightlifting. He started identifying himself with the biblical character of 'Samson'. Under psychological compulsion, he went to Jerusalem to move a stone in the Western Wall, which he thought was not in the right place. He had to be hospitalized there. He was administered anti-psychotic medicines, which made it possible for him to return home.

ii) Identification with Ideas: Individuals begin to associate themselves, usually with a religious or political idea. This fuels their desire to visit Jerusalem. A Protestant belonging to some region in South America had such an idiosyncratic idea. He wished to destroy the Islamic holy places, and build Jewish holy places instead in those areas. Then, he wanted to begin the war of Gog and Magog, so that Anti-Christ and Christ would appear. He actually ended up destroying the inner spaces of some holy mosques in Jerusalem. Due to his mental state, he did not undergo any trial, and was later transferred to his home country.

iii) Magical Ideas: People of this subtype experience some magical ideas, which link the aspects of illness, health, and healing with the city of Jerusalem. A famous Russian had stopped writing after he was diagnosed with psychosis. The enlightening idea of reciting prayers at the holy sites in Jerusalem, curing him of his sickness, and thus being able to write again, led him to Jerusalem. However, he is known to have starved himself to death within four years after he visited the city.

Type II: Superimposed on Idiosyncratic Ideations
People from this category suffer with obsessions about certain things. They have personality disorders, but do not have any psychosis. This type is supposed to consist of the majority of individuals subjected to the syndrome.

i) Group: This subtype includes individuals who are a part of a group. There were groups of people, like Christians, who were present outside the churches in Jerusalem. They attempted at resurrection of the dead. Their clothing resembled that of the attire as in the days of Christ.

ii) Individuals: A middle-aged man, originally from Germany, is known to have been in the search of "true" religion. This involved a well-educated and healthy person, caught with an obsession to do this work, which he did not know what for. After studying some religions, including Judaism, he felt that only 'primitive Christianity' (the religion of Jesus before Peter and Paul ruined it) qualifies as a true religion. So, he started preaching about it on every available opportunity. Once, he confronted with the priests, shouting that they were barbarians and pagans. Later, he also began destroying paintings and statues. In the local mental health center, he was examined, but was surprisingly not detected with any personality disorder or psychopathology. He did not let go of his stand, however, and continued to preach elsewhere, outside Jerusalem.

It was observed that of all the Type III patients, the majority were Protestants, with one being Catholic, and another a Jew. Their religious backgrounds were specifically looked at to determine their behavioral trends while they had fallen prey to the Jerusalem syndrome.

Patients are treated for such psychiatric illness like any other disorder. Notably, unlike patients from other categories, Type I category patients (without previous history) usually are known to come back to their natural selves within a week's time. Although they get treated, it has been observed that they recover mostly after going away from Jerusalem, more than due to the treatment itself. Patients recalling their conduct later is observed too, as they sometimes even feel ashamed about their strange acts.

As mentioned earlier, these were only observations noted by a few people, and did not have any statistical base. There are no firm studies or any scientific reasoning behind this syndrome that justifies its possible occurrence. This weird medical condition is mainly believed to be caused by the predispositions about religion one has in mind. Still, case studies involving real people appear to be scary. Imagine the different moods one would be in before going on an excursion and after coming back, with some exceptional stories to share about how (not) exciting the trip was!