The Jerusalem Syndrome

Each year a number of travelers to Jerusalem become convinced that they themselves are the Messiah or the Virgin or King David or God or Satan

by Rebecca Lee

A WOMAN who believes she is the Virgin Mary enters the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. She is dressed in drab Western clothes, a nondescript skirt and blouse. It is dawn in Jerusalem. An Arab boy jumps out at her and gestures toward two cross, spittine camels on the sidewalk. “Would you like to ride, miss? Would you like to ride George Bush, or his wife, Michael Jackson?" Mary smiles and touches the boy on the head as she passes. She enters the long, snaking alleys of the Arab marketplace, walks serenely through, and shakes her head no to every treasure offered—a T-shirt depicting Yasser Arafat with an olive branch in his mouth, a vial of sand from the Dead Sea, a velvet rug depicting the Last Supper. She turns left into the Christian Quarter and then passes out of the sunlight into the perpetual cool and duskiness of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built on the hill where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. So many Christian sects lay claim to this church that the noise inside can be chillingly chaotic, all the competing services rising into a din of religious exhortation, a sound one might expect at the Tower of Babel. The geographic heart of Christendom in the summer of 1994 is deeply discordant, wild, dysfunctional.

Once inside the church. Mary veers right and ascends the stairs to the Room of Pity; it is lined with glass mosaics, one of which shows Jesus’ body flung in various positions of distress. The room is dark; its windows are of milky glass, as it faithful to the biblieal metaphor “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.”

Mary pauses before the altar at Golgotha, said to be the exact place of crucifixion. She stands silent for a moment. Then suddenly she kneels, and as her knees strike the cool floor, her face distorts and she cries out, sharply. She lays her face on the floor and begins to sob desperately. Her day has begun.

ELIEZER Witztum, a cheerful man, is an expert on sadness. He is a professor of psychiatry at Beersheva Mental Health Center, specializing in despair, disorientation, and grief. “It is not effective to tell somebody she is not the Virgin,” he says to me, referring to Mary. Witztum counsels people like Mary, who suffer from a psychological disorder colloquially called the Jerusalem Syndrome, an affliction peculiar to travelers to Jerusalem who snap under the historical and religious weight of the city and begin to believe that they themselves are the Messiah or the Virgin or King David or, more commonly, God or Satan. Many of these people have strikingly similar spiritual histories: a deeply religious childhood followed by an adolescent rebellion against their faith and an eventual falling away. Backsliders appear to be far more vulnerable to the syndrome, because their image of Jerusalem is sometimes drawn in a child’s hand, unamended by adult reasoning.

The sufferers are of two types—those who arrive in Jerusalem with a history of psychological or behavioral problems and those without any sign or record of past psychiatric problems. The former group comprises 82 percent of the sufferers, according to Witztum. But those in the latter group, who are exhibiting what psychiatrists call the syndrome proper, are the more perplexing of the two types. Most believe for an average of five to seven days that they are some form of divinity; then they step back into the milder religious atmosphere of America or Europe as if nothing had happened. Of these, most are surprisingly responsive to therapy. Witztum described one such patient who spoke of the experience as being rather like intoxication. In the summer of 1986 he entered the Holy Sepulchre and was overcome by the feeling that he was Jesus. When he began sharing this conviction aloud with his tour group, he was taken to Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital, where he was treated by the hospital’s director. Yair Bar El. Within five days he was fine. He returned to his homeland, got married, and remains baffled about what happened. He is extraordinarily polite, as are many of the victims of the syndrome proper, most of whom don’t rant but simply worry that they might be Jesus.

The former patient would like to return to Jerusalem for a visit but worries that the syndrome will strike again—as if Jerusalem were the problem. Witztum concurs. “This case was a reaction to a place, not a true psychosis,” he says. In a new entry on the syndrome in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the question is asked, “Does Jerusalem’s religious atmosphere actually induce psychiatric disturbance in the vulnerable visitor?” Though there is no definitive answer yet, Witztum believes that the “unique atmosphere” of Jerusalem together with the complexities of the human psyche may be more than some travelers can manage.

In order to explain the syndrome, Witztum differentiates between pilgrims and tourists. A tourist moves from the center of his existence, his home, to the periphery, in order to vacation. A pilgrim, however. moves from the periphery to the center of his world. Perhaps the best definition of “center” in this context was given by the religious historian Mircea Eliade, who wrote that the center is where the “axis mundi [the center axis of meaning] penetrates the earthly sphere.”

Once a tiny hilltop fortification. Jerusalem has come to be the axis mundi for three of the world’s major religions, where heaven descends to touch and bless the earth; Witztum calls the city “the umbilical cord of the world.” Its hilltop location conferred a religious superiority on Jerusalem at a time when military and spiritual might were indistinguishable. “Their gods are gods of the hills,”the ancients said of Jerusalem in the first chapter of Kings, “so they were stronger than we.” This inaccessibility also lent Jerusalem a rugged, evocative aura for pilgrims, an aura that persists to this day.

In every century of the city’s history many who have considered themselves its rightful citizens have been forced to live in exile. In the eleventh century, after the Crusaders massacred most of the city’s Jews and Muslims and sent the rest of them scattering through the surrounding region, the author Judah ha-Levi wrote, “My heart is in the East, and I am in the depths of the West. My food has no taste. How can it be sweet?”

To live apart from one’s center is, of course, psychologically disturbing, but the disorder that Witztum and Bar El have been elucidating over the past thirteen years is one that indicates how psychologically troubling it can be to enter or return to one’s center. The center often cannot hold the weight of human longing. The place is either disappointing or overwhelming, and travelers frequently break down, to varying degrees. Witztum has said, “It’s a problem of inner geography.”

THE Church of the Holy Sepulchre is partitioned among fractious sects— Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Catholic, the Coptic Church, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox. The church is darkly beautiful and musty, almost rank. It is in an endless state of disrepair, with scaffolding everywhere, because the sects can rarely agree on how to proceed. If a building can be said to reveal the personality of its owner, then the Holy Sepulchre reveals Christianity to be quarrelsome, mysterious, and alluring. It is a breeding ground for this particular form of insanity—this manifestation of the human soul reaching toward the divine.

The fixation has been around for centuries. In fact, one of the philosophical leaders of the early Crusades, a man named Peter the Hermit, may have been profoundly affected by Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre from his native France. After the trip he claimed that Christ had appeared to him in the Holy Sepulchre and had given him authorization to start the Crusades. In the early eleventh century, while the Pope was summoning the nobility and upper classes to begin a military campaign to spread Christianity and drive the Turks from Asia Minor, Peter the Hermit was galvanizing the desperately poor, intoxicating them with the idea of Jerusalem, a pseudo-heavenly place on earth, a place where, as in heaven, they would be rewarded for their suffering.

(Continued on page 34)

(Continued from page 26)

Since then the Holy Sepulchre has attracted a long line of pilgrims who have abandoned their own identities in search of divinity. The medieval world produced great waives of messiahs, many of whom were able to gather huge followings. Warrior messiahs inspired the crazed, relentless horror of the Crusades; flagellant leaders, who saw in their bruised bodies the image of the suffering Christ, were able to persuade thousands of people to beat themselves until their flesh wars blue and swollen; and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who were a sort of creepy, reckless antecedent to New Age theology, persuaded their followers that because the inner man was perfected already, the outer man could be wildly promiscuous, slothful, even murderous.

Not until 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses against the sale of indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg church, did the authority of messiahs begin to wane. Luther proclaimed that every man had a direct line to God, and as his view won converts, it became increasingly difficult for messiahs to gather followings. At the same time, the sheer number of messiahs grew dramatically. The religious historian Norman Cohn has written that with Luther’s Reformation, “once the layman began to feel that he himself stood face to face with God and to rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings.”

IN the desert surrounding Jerusalem barrenness and abundance share the same strange landscape. This is the location of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, when his true identity as the Messiah dawned on him. According to nonbelievers or skeptical believers, as discussed by Albert Schweitzer in his book The Psychiatric Studs of Jesus, this wilderness is where Jesus made the transition from “the latent to the active stage of paranoia.”In a landscape whose religious history was already rich with the myth and delusions of John the Baptist, Schweitzer claimed, Jesus’ psyche exploded into the divine, and never recovered. Ever since, people from all over the world have traveled to this wilderness and felt prophetic, messianic glimmerings within themselves.

Lawrence of Arabia wrote that since Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were “assertions, not arguments.” they required many prophets to further their credos. These prophets, he claimed, were often forged in the desert.

None of them had been of the wilderness; but their lives were after a pattern. Their birth set them in crowded places. An unintelligible passionate yearning drove them out into the desert. There they lived a greater or lesser time in meditation and physical abandonment; and thence they returned with their imagined message articulate.

ALONG with the Holy Sepulchre, the wilderness around Jerusalem is probably one of the most frequent breakdown spots. I say “probably” because the statistics are sketchy. (“Messiahs don’t like to sit around filling out forms,”Witzlum told a reporter from The New York Times.) Members of the Israeli Army, should they find a European or an American wandering in bed sheets, looking for locusts and wild honey, know to take him to Kfar Shaul, high on the northwest edge of Jerusalem. If Jesus came again to Jerusalem, this is perhaps where he’d be taken. It is surely the world’s most exotic—and fragrant—psychiatric hospital.

Kfar Shaul, formerly an Arab village, is divided into many small, terraced stone homes, which are connected by twisting pathways. The entire village smells like perfume, because of the wild, tall gardens everywhere, and there are hundreds of trees—fig, pomegranate, crab apple. The hospital is in the middle of a drab, vaguely industrial part of Jerusalem, so to step through its gates is like stepping into the Garden of Eden.

In almost any waiting room at Kfar Shaul a visitor can read about dozens of travelers who came to the Old City, went through a brief divine intoxication, and then returned to their own lives. A kindergarten teacher believes for a week that she is pregnant with the new Messiah, and then returns to Maine—to her husband and job—and doesn’t say a word about it. A pastor from the Midwest goes on a tour of the Holy Land with his wife and, as he stands at Golgotha, acquires a tierce belief that he is Jesus returned to earth. After live days he returns to the Midwest, to his pulpit; among the parishioners listening to him, only his wife, still bewildered, knows about his brief fling with divinity. A computer programmer from New York City, a young man, visits Jerusalem in June of 1994 and is suddenly seized by the worry that he might be Jesus; if so, what should he do? In the medieval world his path would have been clearer: he could have gathered some followers and thrust himself into the divine limelight. In the modern world, however, divinity like his, once so integral to the life and history of the Church, is now anachronistic, its purpose phased out long ago.

ISEE Mary almost every day, crying at the Holy Sepulchre. One afternoon, as I sit reading on a nearby bench, she stands up, dries her eyes, and walks down the stairs, out of Calvary, into the twentieth century. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I am deeply curious about Mary’s real identity. I know only that she speaks Polish and some English, and that she has been in Jerusalem for at least three years. She is quite well known in the Old City. She and the others who may be unrecovered exemplars of the Jerusalem Syndrome (a rambling, stumbling Satan, King David at the Western Wall, and a whole host of wandering messiahs) provide local color.

I follow her out of the church and back down the path Christ took toward his crucifixion—the Via Dolorosa, or Sorrowful Way. At the place where Jesus is said to have stumbled, Mary—as always—makes a sad, tiny tripping movement. A couple of feet past, a boy expertly casts a long cascade of postcards in front of her, trying to sell them for a shekel. Mary turns left, into the Jerusalem Star Restaurant, where she orders a falafel while I hover nearby. I want to ask her, among other things, to describe the moment when she discovered her own divinity, the moment her identity flowered.

When I gesture toward the chair across from her, lifting my eyebrows, Mary looks back with gentle indifference. I sit down. “You are Mary?” I say. I am very close to her. Her eyes are brown, her face broad, her hair cropped short. She says nothing. I tell her who I am, where I’m from. She nods, and smites a bit vaguely. But when I say, “You are from Poland?” she shakes her head no. “You have family?” I ask. “Children? I mean, besides ...” She becomes annoyed with me, and keeps shaking her head no. She no longer wants me to talk to her. She seems threatened, even as I apologize. Finally I flee, and spiraling back up the Dolorosa, past the Chapel of the Flagellation, I feel guilty, as if by touching her identity I have touched an open wound. I also feel a twinge of nervousness, as if I had been banished by the Virgin herself.

AIR Bar El, who presides over Kfar

Shaul, is a gentle, serene man originally from Buenos Aires. His office is high above the sultry campus of the hospital: it feels a bit like a tree house.

Since Bar El named the syndrome, in 1982, he has treated hundreds of messiahs and prophets and Virgin Marys. The managers of Christian hostels are by now well acquainted with the Jerusalem Syndrome. Bar El tells me. They know how to spot it and where to send its sufferers. The symptoms are readily observed. “The first symptom is falling behind the tour.” Bar El says. “The second is irritation with one’s traveling companions.” After that comes preaching or excessive singing, and then the clincher—undressing and wrapping oneself in bed sheets.

Bar El speaks of his patients with mild amusement and respect. Like Witztum. he tells me that the Jerusalem Syndrome is not a true psychosis. He regards those with the syndrome proper not as insane in an ordinary sense but as religious casualties—people who got too close to the fire, and caught tire themselves.

As for treatment, Bar El’s methods are varied; he operates case by case, individual by individual, as seems necessary given the variety of the patients he treats: a woman pregnant again and again with God’s child but unable to give birth until the entire world reforms; a Canadian Samson who weeps because nobody will believe him; a Jesus who calls the Israeli police to report unbelievers. Sometimes Bar El brings in family members to remind the patient of the real identity for which he or she is responsible. Sometimes he uses mild antipsychotic drugs. Though he doesn’t think that group therapy is a successful treatment for the syndrome, he once put two messiahs in a room and asked them to decide who was the true Messiah; after an hour and a half each claimed that the other was the impostor.

“The most important thing, finally,” Bar El says, as he walks me out of his office, “is to get them away from the stimulus. Once away from the city, they are usually fine.” I walk down the stairs and stand alone for a while in the shade of a pomegranate tree, staring out over the magnificent city—the stimulus—scattered over the Judean hills, its spires and domes rising and falling. It is so beautiful that for a moment I can imagine descending into it. abandoning my identity and taking on a more religious one, if only to belong inextricably to the city and its history. as a vein belongs to the body. The sun is setting, casting a pink light over the Arab side of town, the doors of which are closed today in a mourning strike for two Arabs killed in a skirmish at a Gaza checkpoint.

A small man with a beard joins me under the tree. I met him earlier in the day. He is a patient at Kfar Shaul. He said he was formerly a child psychologist at Yale University. Bar El could not introduce me to any of the messiahs, because of client privilege, so I ask the patient. “Do you know anybody who has the Jerusalem Syndrome?”

“What’s that?” he says.

“When the identity of the land overwhelms the identity of the individual.”

“Oh, that,”he says. “Everybody in Jerusalem has that.”

I linger at Kfar Shaul until after dinner, when the patients get their medicine. A male nurse allows me to sit and watch as they come in, one by one, out of the gloaming into this small, bright room. He gives out different pills in tiny paper cups. He offers me some Prozac, laughing. Some of the patients who shuffle in are obviously disturbed, yet some seem to me perfectly content. One man’s yarmulke falls off when he tips his head back to swallow his pills. He winks at the nurse as he picks it up. Most of the patients at Kfar Shaul speak English. Three or four of them speak private languages all their own.

As for the messiahs, I can’t spot them, and nobody is allowed to tell me who they are. I am told, though, that they are often given haloperidol or other antipsychotic drugs. Perhaps if America’s most famous victim of the syndrome, David Koresh. who recognized his own divinity on a visit to Jerusalem in the summer of 1983 but was not treated at Kfar Shaul, had been given haloperidol, the Waco massacre would never have happened. Haloperidol, pharmacologists explain, is a dopamine antagonist; some psychiatrists hypothesize that too much dopamine can cause the mind to be overactive and project to excess, to translate what is into what might be—an action of faith. An overabundance of dopamine, then, may blur the differences one perceives between oneself and God. Haloperidol blocks some of the dopamine receptors, closes the gates, prevents interplay in the mind between what is seen and what is unseen, discourages the leap of faith. Physicians keep the dosage very low, however, fearing that too much of the drug might wipe out the religious imagination entirely.

IF you take a sharp left upon entering the Holy Sepulchre, you come to the small domed entrance to the Chapel of the Angel. This little room leads into another, tinier room with a hundred candles blazing, the Tomb of Jesus. Surrounding the entrance to the tomb are little marble faces. The ones that are high up, beyond reach, look down with all sorts of expressions—pain, anxiety, agony, irony—but the ones within reach are completely, eerily blank. Perhaps the Catholics have done this. They rub the faces with their fingers, or kiss them as they pass.

One might presume, walking through the Holy Sepulchre, that believers who exhibit the most ritualized behavior are at greatest risk for the syndrome; among Christians, therefore, members of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches would contract it most often. But in fact 95 percent of all patients who are treated for the syndrome proper are Protestants. Yair Bar El told The Jerusalem Post, “For Protestants, the religious hierarchy has been broken. They have a direct connection to God, which enables them to go through a strong personal emotional experience.”

In his recent and somewhat controversial book Religions Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America, Julius H. Rubin postulates the existence of “a distinctive psychopathology characteristic of evangelical Protestants” stretching back to Martin Luther and the loss of ritualistic sacraments, such as confession. Devout Catholics and devout Jews may therefore be psychologically healthier than devout Protestants, because rituals are like psychic machinery by which the believer gets close to God, to the fire, without succumbing to the flames.

Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, an Episcopalian priest and a practicing psychiatrist who serves on the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Religion and Psychiatry, concurs with this viewpoint. “The Protestant stands alone before God. This is the strength and the weakness of Protestantism. Obviously, it’s an advantage to stand face to face with God. But as you can see, it can have serious psychological drawbacks.”

I SEE Mary one last lime. By now I have joined that wandering American sect with the droning leader: the tour. Tours are of course humiliating, because they mark the traveler as a tourist, somebody passing over the surface of the city, rather than a pilgrim, who knows the city in her heart. This particular tour is doubly humiliating, because we are all given matching hats to wear that say HOLY ROCK CAFE JERUSALEM.

En masse we curl around and around the narrow streets of the Old City, until, in the late afternoon, we reach the Holy Sepulchre and enter into its cool, dense religious confusion. As we walk through the dim sanctuaries, we keep passing between worshippers and the objects of their worship—stones, crosses, gold-drenched altars. Finally we ascend the cracked marble steps to Calvary, two by two.

And there is Mary, carrying on as usual, as if she’d only just heard the news. Behind Mary is a huge mosaic depicting Jesus’ death. Our guide is pointing out the blood falling from Jesus’ wounds, like a trail of sparkling rubies, but everybody’s attention is riveted on Mary. Her grief is palpable; it fills the room.

After watching and thinking about Mary for a month, I have developed a feeling for her project. A formidable history lies behind her actions—through the ages whole sects and religious orders have been dedicated to keeping Mary’s grief alive. They have believed that to stop mourning the death of Jesus Christ is to cleave the human being from God permanently, since Jesus lies as the bridge across the great abyss. If at any moment no one is shedding tears over the Crucifixion, then human nature will be irretrievably cut loose from the love of God.

When Mary moves from one station to another, a few feet away, she stops crying instantly. We can see then how precise she is about this; it is her job. She glances up at our tour. I beam back, hoping she might recognize me, maybe even raise a hand. I feel a thrill at the thought—to be plucked out of this ordinary crowd from America, to be distinguished from the tourists as somebody connected, not apart, somebody woven into the intricate fabric of this endless city, a city made in the image of heaven just as surely as human beings are made in the fragmented image and substance of God.

But her gaze passes over me easily, without recognition. She walks to the silver altar of Calvary very calmly, and then falls to the floor suddenly, incautiously, in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to save us all.