A bizarre mental syndrome that has seen scores of visitors to Jerusalem become convinced they are characters from the Bible is the subject of a major new exhibition in Scotland.
Artist Nathan Coley has turned his attention to Jerusalem syndrome, a travel psychosis affecting people hypnotised by the Holy City who start to preach and behave as biblical characters, from King David to John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself.
The syndrome is estimated to affect up to 20 people a year, almost all Christians or Jews. It has provoked heated debates among doctors over what actually turns sufferers’ heads.
Dr Moshe Kalian, the district psychiatrist of Jerusalem, who has diagnosed many cases of Jerusalem syndrome, says: “In our opinion, Jerusalem is a kind of magnet for certain people who develop their ideas before they come and act out their behaviour once they are here.”
Cases run from people who start preaching in the streets of the city to more bizarre behaviour. Kalian says: “There are anecdotal cases like a tourist who was making a fuss in a hotel because he was giving orders to prepare the last supper. There was a lady who went to an emergency room, claimed she was having a miscarriage and when the doctors told her she was not pregnant at all, she said she came to Jerusalem to give birth to the new baby Jesus.”
Kalian says many people may have similar ideas, but don’t cause a disturbance that attracts the police: “They don’t bother anyone and nobody bothers them.”
Some people simply chant, sing or deliver sermons at holy sites. Others turn dangerous, as in the case in the case of Dennis Rohan, a deranged Australian Christian who set fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque in 1969.
Kalian says: “I treated a guy who was stopped by the police who entered the lobby of a hotel and started to grab glasses from people’s faces. He said he wanted them to see the true light. That guy thought of himself as the Messiah, that he was chosen to come to Israel and bring peace to the world. He was under my therapy for almost ten years.
“I remember one or two cases in which people walked to the desert, while an Italian tourist some 15 years ago was wearing a sack and using a rope to keep his clothes together, and he was walking barefoot from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.”
Kalian estimates about 20 tourists a year may typically suffer Jerusalem syndrome and US comedian, Marc Maron, developed a book and stage show, Jerusalem Syndrome: My Life as a Reluctant Messiah. Author Robert Stone used it as a theme in his thriller Damascus Gate, there was a 1998 film The Jerusalem Syndrome, and it became the subject of a German dance performance exploring the “psychological and physical” extremes.
Coley first visited Jerusalem last February and returned during Ramadan, while Yasser Arafat lay dying in Paris. “I deliberately didn’t go looking for madness,” he says. “That would have been too straightforward and, for me, less interesting. I documented every day the tension and confusion between the three faiths there.
“Does the syndrome exist? Yes, but may be in another city it would just be called madness. It’s not that these people are normal before they come to Jerusalem. They are just looking for the correct stage to enact their drama.”
‘Nathan Coley’s 20-minute film, backed by the Scottish Arts Council and British Council, is at the Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee on 21 January.