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What is the Jerusalem Syndrome?

Jerusalem SyndromeEach year about 100 tourists are admitted to psychiatric care suffering from a condition called Jerusalem Syndrome. The condition is triggered when visitors to Jerusalem experience the intense spiritual significance that the city holds. Tourists arriving in the holy city are overwhelmed with the greatness of it all and become discombobulated! Residents who are used to the humdrum everyday normality of the City of Gold are rarely affected by the Jerusalem Syndrome.

People who are already deeply religious before visiting Israel or those already suffering from a mental illness are often susceptible to the Syndrome. They arrive expecting a supernatural experience. Often they are would-be Messiahs or social misfits. The new arrivals are overwhelmed by the historical holiness of Jerusalem which envelopes them. Jews suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome tend to hover around the Wailing Wall, the holiest Jewish site in the city.

There are medieval texts which refer to the “hysteria” experienced by visitors and in 1930 psychiatrist Heinz Herman identified “Jerusalem Squabble Poison.”  Jerusalem Syndrome was classified by Dr. Yair Bar El in 1979 and 1993 when he studied 470 tourists who had been declared temporarily insane and referred to Israeli psychiatric hospitals. Of his study group 66% where Jews, 33% Christian and 1% non-religious. Bar El found that people were most affected during the holiday seasons (Jewish High Holidays or Christmas and Easter) and summer.

Symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome

There are various degrees of the Jerusalem Syndrome. Symptoms usually start to show on the visitor’s second day in Jerusalem. Symptoms begin with a sense of agitation and anxiety. The tourists begin to isolate themselves and work themselves up into a religious fervor. Becoming obsessed with purification rituals like visiting a mikvah (ritual bath). Those suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome have been found dressed in Biblical robes or white garments preaching to the crowds or wandering aimlessly through neighborhoods and Jerusalem parks declaiming religious verses. You could say they become intoxicated by the religious atmosphere of the city.

They begin to see mystical auras and hidden religious meaning in everything. Some sufferers simply get over it and go home to continue their lives. Others are referred to psychiatric hospitals and require treatment. The sufferers can develop radical religious or political goals, adopt extreme views on health and hygiene or form their own religious customs and prayers.

The Jerusalem Syndrome can occur in people who have been perfectly normal prior to their visit and then suddenly have a psychiatric reaction to the Biblical city. The majority of Jerusalem Syndrome sufferers are perfectly harmless and rather amusing; imagine seeing the Messiah or John the Baptist walking around Jerusalem. When treated many sufferers often declare: “I just don’t know what came over me!”

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