There’s something in Jerusalem that makes some 150 tourists a year lose their minds. Some of them think they’re the Messiah or the devil, others feel they must destroy a mosque or a church, and yet others know where the Ark of the Covenant is hiding.
Imagine a nice, perfectly normal-looking tourist traveling around Israel, who eventually comes to Jerusalem, as tourists do. Suddenly everything goes awry: claiming he is Samson, he tries to bring down the walls near the Western Wall. Amusing? It depends who you ask. Strange as it may sound, there are about 150 such cases every year in Jerusalem.
It’s called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” and there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world — not in Haifa, not in Paris, and not even in Holland. What exactly happens to make people lose their sanity?
This syndrome is unique to pilgrims, and most of those who suffer from it are Christian men, mainly Protestant, in their 30s. Some have had psychiatric problems in the past. Raised on the Old and New Testaments and the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist, they come to Jerusalem for the first time, and something happens.
When a pilgrim is faced with reality
Several years ago I had the good fortune to meet Dr Carlos Yair Bar-el, formerly Jerusalem District head psychiatrist. As director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital, Bar-el encountered hair-raising stories that were funny and terrifying at the same time. He says that prior to the year 2000, the belief in the Messiah’s imminent arrival threatened to wreak havoc in the city.
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Bar-el also noted that some of the victims of Jerusalem Syndrome claimed they were the Messiah, the devil, or characters from the Old or New Testament. The gap between the image of Jerusalem and the reality is apparently one of the syndrome’s major causes. The innocent pilgrim, expecting to find biblical Jerusalem, pure and quiet, encounters instead a bustling city, traffic jams, and history screaming from every synagogue, mosque, and church. Even before he has had a chance to assimilate it all (and even before he has seen a Betar soccer game), he is physically and mentally exhausted.
Another theory is that this is a latent poison that Jerusalem activates. It may be that the first person this happened to was King David himself, who danced and capered like a fool when the Ark of the Covenant came to Jerusalem, and whose wife Michal could not understand his behavior.
Surrounding the Walls seven times
Jaffa Gate has been the entrance to Jerusalem for thousands of years. It is fairly common to see eccentrics there, and there have also been atrocities committed nearby, including executions in the mid-19th century.
In the summer of 1099, thousands of Crusader knights surrounded the walls of the city seven times in the belief that the walls would fall without a battle (the “Jericho effect”). When that didn’t work, the Crusaders discovered that summer in Jerusalem is no great pleasure, especially for Europeans, and especially for people wearing armor, and they brought trees to build ladders and other props so they could conquer the city from the Arabs. The conquest ended in a horrifying massacre of some 50,000 Muslim and Jewish residents of Jerusalem. One of the traditions claims that they entered the city on Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion; how symbolic.
According to another legend, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi kissed the ground at the entrance to the gate before entering — for the first time in his life — the city to which he had prayed for many years. The legend says that only seconds before he fulfilled his dream, he was run over by a man on a horse and died (though it appears he actually died in Egypt).
Another story about Jaffa Gate tells of a young Arab girl who gave flowers to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (husband of Augusta Victoria), and was burned to death when one of the flares shot for the Kaiser set her dress on fire.
The Temple Mount is at our feet
The entrance of tourists and Israelis to the Temple Mount has been gradually limited since the 1980s: First security measures were stepped up, and in recent years visits have been limited to touring the area of the Mount, and visits to the mosques are not permitted. As you would expect, there is no dearth of strange stories about the Temple Mount.
About 100 years ago a recently discharged British army officer named Montague Parker claimed he knew the exact location of the Ark of the Covenant. After digging in the City of David he decided to look under the Temple Mount. First he raised the money, then he and his men dressed up as Arabs, searching for a week under the Temple Mount in the middle of the night, in the area of Solomon’s Stables.
Though he consulted an astrologer he did not find what he was seeking, and he went to search for the Tablets of the Law in no less a place than under the foundation stone on the Dome of the Rock. When Parker and his men were discovered and guards were called in, they fled for their lives to Jaffa, and from there they went abroad. Only in the 1990s were Parker’s glasses and excavation equipment found in the area of Nikbat Ha-Shiloah. Today you can visit the areas Parker uncovered in the City of David.
A serious incident occurred in 1969, when an Australian Christian tourist set fire to the al-Aksa Mosque. Claiming that he did it in order to hasten the Second Coming, he only succeeded in causing problems for Israel.
Flights over the Temple Mount were banned in the mid-1980s after an American evangelist tried to fly above the Mount in his search for the Ark of the Covenant (though two years prior to that Harrison Ford did find it in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but who’s counting?). The American, who was also a physicist, used sophisticated electronic equipment, and claimed that the ark was buried under the Mount in the period of the First Temple.
The Messiah’s on the way
Russian writer Nikolai Gogol came to the city in the 19th century because he believed that his writer’s block could only be overcome in Jerusalem, which he felt was the source of his difficulty. When he arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher he was astonished by the noise and confusion, and his lofty expectations were replaced by disgust at the events taking place near the church. Gogol immediately decided that he would not be able to write again.
Gogol wrote about this to Count Leo Tolstoy. Greatly disappointed by the city and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Gogol returned to Russia and sank into depression. After attempting to write the third version of Dead Souls, he destroyed it and died. An article written by psychiatrists claimed that Gogol did not suffer from Jerusalem Syndrome.
By the way, to the left of the impressive entry gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher you can see notes placed among the marble columns, which we had thought was something reserved for the Western Wall.
Other pilgrims who came to Jerusalem claimed that according to their calculations, the Messiah is already on the way. Some collapsed on the spot, others took their clothes off, and yet others committed suicide on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus entered Jerusalem, and from where he is also supposed to return. From the Mount of Olives, by the way, you have one of the most impressive views in the Middle East, and in my opinion, in the entire world.
On December 31, 1999, minutes before the millennium, I went with friends to the peak of the Mount of Olives near the Intercontinental Hotel to see what would happen at midnight. Crews from CNN and other television networks from Israel and abroad were also awaiting developments. At 11 pm we saw lone pilgrims with crowns of thorns on their heads, as a symbol of Jesus’ suffering. But at midnight we looked and listened, and other than noises from the people assembled with us, unfortunately, not a thing happened.
Another strange story, one of many, is connected with Agron Street in the center of Jerusalem. A large building was once constructed there by a wealthy Dutch countess who dedicated it to the 144,000 Children of Israel mentioned in the vision of John in the New Testament. The building was abandoned during construction but was only destroyed many years later.
We’ll end with a warm recommendation for Amos Elon’s Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, which for me personally is the bible to understanding Jerusalem, if such a thing is at all possible. It will leave you flabbergasted by the city’s history and the never-ending bizarre events that take place there. Only in Jerusalem.