'Jerusalem syndrome': delusions experienced when visiting the holy city

As Christians and Jews around the world prepare to celebrate the holidays of Easter and Passover, many will flock to the city of Jerusalem. Since ancient times, the city has been a magnet for religious pilgrims from some of the world’s largest faiths - namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But for a small percentage of these visitors, their reverence of Jerusalem may become pathological - in other words, a visit to the city may trigger obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychotic experiences. Some psychiatrists have dubbed this condition “Jerusalem syndrome,” and say it happens in people who have no prior history of mental illness. However, others dispute the diagnosis and say the condition is more likely part of a broader psychosis, and is not unique to Jerusalem.

You see things like this emerge periodically in the literature, where people think they have found a unique syndrome, but it may just be the result of an underlying mental illness.

Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, NYC

Jerusalem syndrome was first identified in 2000. Israeli psychiatrists reported in The British Journal of Psychiatry that they had examined 1,200 tourists who had been admitted to the city’s Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center with “severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems” between 1980 and 1993. The researchers identified three varieties of Jerusalem syndrome. The first type included people who suffered from a previous psychotic illness, which often made them believe they were characters from the Bible. For example, one American tourist who had paranoid schizophrenia believed he was the biblical Samson, and visited Israel because he felt compelled to move one of the stone blocks in the Western Wall. Patients with the second form of the syndrome may have some signs of mental disorders but not a full-blown mental illness. And the third type - about 42 out of the 1,200 patients - had no prior history of mental illness. They recovered spontaneously after leaving Israel.