A middle-aged Russian tourist dressed in white and claiming to be Jesus checked in last week at the Petra Hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City.
He did not stay long, the hostel’s clerk said. Just a few days and he was gone.
The man likely was suffering from a psychiatric condition known as Jerusalem syndrome in which tourists, and in some cases even locals, become so overwhelmed by the experience of Jerusalem that they believe themselves to be biblical characters or messengers of God.
“There is a very special spiritual feeling some people have arriving here,” said Dr. Gregory Katz, a psychiatrist who heads the emergency room at Jerusalem’s Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center, where 30 to 40 patients a year are treated for Jerusalem syndrome.
“Jerusalem is where the Bible stories they have learned took place,” Katz said. Seeing it and experiencing the place firsthand, he said, “changes everything for them and makes some people believe they are in fact walking the Bible.”
Most of those diagnosed with the syndrome have a history of mental illness. But in a small number of cases, the person’s experience being in Jerusalem and at its holy sites appears to triggers psychosis for the first time, Katz said. In such cases the condition is temporary and easily treated by medication.
At a time when Jerusalem is again at the center of major political debate and has put U.S.-Israel relations under strain, these cases are a reminder that the city not only drives politicians a bit mad, but some visitors, too.
Even Homer Simpson was diagnosed with a case of Jerusalem syndrome in a recent episode of “The Simpsons” TV show set in Israel. In the episode, Homer awakens from a dehydrated stupor believing he has been chosen to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in the form of a new religion called Chrisjumas.
The late Israeli psychiatrist Yair Bar-el, the first to label and define Jerusalem syndrome as a mental health condition, had asserted that it could be triggered in people especially agitated by the contrast between the romanticized biblical image of Jerusalem and the modern-day city.
“Those who succumb are unable to deal with the concrete reality of Jerusalem today,” Bar-el, who died recently, wrote in a 2000 British Journal of Psychiatry article. “A gap appears between their subconscious idealistic image of Jerusalem and the city as it appears in reality. One might view their psychotic state and, in particular, the need to preach their universal message as an attempt to bridge the gap between these two representations of Jerusalem.”
Although the condition appears to affect predominately Christian, and specifically Protestant, tourists from the United States and Scandinavia, Jewish ones, including Israelis who have traveled to the city from elsewhere in the country, also have been treated.
Those who fall ill with its delusions and visions tend to identify with characters relevant to their own religious background. A Jewish patient, for example, is more likely to be among the King Davids, while Christians might imagine themselves Mary Magdalene or John the Baptist.
Pesach Lichtenberg, director of the men’s psychiatry division at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem and head of the psychiatry department at the city’s Hebrew University, said that defined more broadly, the syndrome includes Jews who have fantasies of bringing redemption.
“You have a robust internal tourism of people drawn to Jerusalem. Sometimes it can be an extremely gradual process where people come from other areas of country and move to Jerusalem,” Lichtenberg said. “They stay on and sometimes that process gathers steam and they want to be more and more part of some sense of anticipated action. These are Jews who want to hasten the Third Temple.”
He added, “They are hooking into the same sense of holy vibrations or intonations within a special happening here, something they feel is at the center of the universe.”
Identifying oneself either as a reincarnated King David—who, according to Jewish tradition, was anointed as the original messiah—or one of his descendants is the most popular choice for Jews with the syndrome, Lichtenberg said.
Those affected by the syndrome are known for wandering the streets preaching prophecies or chanting biblical psalms or verses. Others are seen cloaked in white robes, sometimes cut from hotel linens, and feel a need to purify themselves for messianic missions by washing and bathing obsessively.
Most are not considered to be dangerous to others. However, Israeli newspapers reported earlier this month that an Irish tourist, suspected of suffering from Jerusalem syndrome, was caught wielding a knife at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is built on the sight where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. An Israeli policeman shot him in order to apprehend him.
In 1969, an Australian tourist claiming to be on a mission from God tried to burn down the Al-Aksa Mosque, setting off Arab riots.
“I think it comes from people being overly immersed in religion,” said Omran Dakkak, 65, owner of the Old City Bazaar, a souvenir shop selling olive wood crosses and small menorahs near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Dakkak inherited the store from his father and used to work there as a boy. For as long as he can remember, he said, he has seen people draped in rosary beads and robes claiming to be various messiahs.
Hadar Gittelman, 22, an Israeli who is a messianic Jew and works at a Christian guest house in the Old City, says she has seen her share of such people pass through, including a recent American tourist who called himself the “Angel Jesus.”
“People come here and feel some sort of extra holy spirit. They breathe it in as if it’s in the air,” she said. “They feel like they posses the truth.”