The Western Wall is one of Israel's biggest tourist
attractions with visitors streaming to its famous stones
to pray, take photographs, participate in an
IDF ceremony, attend a Bar Mitzvah or just to absorb some of
historic and spiritual atmosphere that permeates the ancient site.
Some of those drawn to the Wall are seeking a supernatural experience in the presence of such a religious place. Psychologists identify these people as having the "Jerusalem
Syndrome." They include the "would-be" messiahs, misfits, misguided and the
Those with the
Jerusalem Syndrome are literally intoxicated by the Holy City - they revel
in the special atmosphere of the Wall past midnight; they delight in the
mystical aura they perceive there at night; their psyches are inflamed by
the historical holiness in which they feel enveloped.
Even though there are other places in Jerusalem which attract similar
characters, the Wall remains their favorite, especially among Jews.
The Jerusalem Syndrome was first clinically identified by Dr. Yair Bar
formerly director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital. Bar El studied 470 tourists who
were referred for treatment between 1979 and 1993. On
basis of his work with these visitors, who had been declared temporarily
insane, Bar El reached some fascinating conclusions.
Of the 470 visitors from all over the world who were hospitalized, 66
percent were Jews, 33 percent were Christians and one percent had no
religious affiliation. Bar El is quick to point out that it is not only
tourists who demonstrate behaviour that indicates the Jerusalem Syndrome;
in fact local residents can be temporarily or permanently affected as
The peak time for visitors who are "intoxicated" by the Holy City is, not
surprisingly, during the holiday seasons - Christmas, Jewish High
Holy days, Easter and Passover - or during the summer months of July and
August. Bar El divides the patients into two broad categories: those with
previous psychiatric histories and
with no previous psychiatric history.
The pilgrim-tourists studied demonstrated remarkably similar patterns of
disintegration and symptoms generally appeared on the second day of
stay in Jerusalem, when they began to feel an inexplicable nervousness
anxiety. If they came with a group or family they suddenly felt a need to
be on their own and left the others. They would often begin to perform acts of purification, or cleansing, such as immersion in a mikva (ritual bath). Often the patients
changed their clothes in an
to resemble biblical figures, for example dressing in white robes, because most of them chose to identify
themselves with a character from the New or Old Testament.
This type of behaviour does not, of course, inevitably lead to
hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Indeed, most of those affected by
the Jerusalem Syndrome do not cause any disturbance and are at worst a
nuisance or a mild source of amusement. But a certain percentage of the
people are severely disturbed and will often behave in a way that demands
psychiatric intervention, at least temporarily.
Sometimes the Jerusalem Syndrome victim will
have definite religious goals, others have political inclinations. Some patients adopt magical health views or individual religious
requirements, self-written prayers and idiosyncratic customs.
interesting sub-group consists of
patients who have no previous psychiatric problems
whatsoever. "Something just happened to me," is a common response when
such tourists begin psychotherapy. Bar El believes that the shock of facing the earthly
Jerusalem can cause a psychiatric reaction which helped bridge the reality
with the dream city.
Dr. Bar El noted that the Jerusalem Syndrome is similar to the "Florence
Syndrome," identified by Italian psychiatrists who long ago noticed a
tendency among tourists and visitors to that city to act in a bizarre and
irrational fashion. In Florence, however, the phenomenon seems to be
triggered by art works and the beauty of the city itself, rather than
Another Jerusalem psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan Scher, claims that many
disturbed people flock to the Holy City seeking the special spiritual
atmosphere that imbues the capital, especially the Old City. "Jerusalem
flooded by messiahs; those who come to meet him, to wait for him or to
settle the turmoil in their own souls.
These colourful characters at the Wall are not governed by canon or
scripture. But they are drawn, as generations before them, to the
spiritual centre of the universe, the hub of the three monotheistic
religions. Some of these people, with problems, with extreme views and
with otherworldly devotions may find themselves falling prey to this
unique and still mainly incomprehensible phenomenon, the Jerusalem