SLICE OF LIFE: Jerusalem Syndrome

Two soldiers stop for a photo with the author. Photo Courtesy of Ameer Hassan

Two soldiers stop for a photo with the author.
Photo Courtesy of Ameer Hassan

Daniel Wirtheim, Features Editor

It was this time last year, Christmas of 2013, that I decided to embark upon a non-denominational pilgrimage to Israel. I never planned on going until I befriended a Palestinian backpacker in Turkey who encouraged me to visit in Israel.

“It’s not like on the television,” he said. “Plus the weather is very nice.”

I was also pushed by my mother, a devote Christian who offered to donate a few hundred dollars to my travel expenses if I were to visit the Holy Land. It being Christmas time was by complete coincidence.

I was lucky to have my friend, Ameer, with me. He took me to Palestinian territories and spoke Arab and Hebrew. He was well traveled and an atheist; I saw him as the perfect guide to the Holy Land.

We walked for a few days in the Old City of Jerusalem, accumulating cheap gifts and fresh humus. I bought a coffee mug with a bloody Jesus on the front for my grandmother. I bought my stepfather a shirt that said, ‘Do not worry, America, Israel has your back.’ We bought Santa hats for ourselves, which caused everyone to laugh and lightened the mood of a place where men with automatic rifles watch you eat. Of course, we also enjoyed the more serious aspects of religion.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a located in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter and believed by some followers of Christianity to be the site of Jesus’ execution and resurrection. It’s an enormous church, dark and candle lit with incredibly high-vaulted ceilings.

The first object a person sees in the church is a large slab of marble lying on the ground that is claimed to be the altar upon which Jesus’ body dead body was laid. The tourists will place objects on the marble hoping they will become forever blessed, or that through the material they will understand the suffering of Jesus Christ. It could be that blessed items sell better on eBay, I could never completely understand this.

I pushed my way to the front and held my hand on the marble slate, I even kissed it. Nothing happened, and before I could meditate on it, I was pushed away by a group of hysterical Christians. After a childhood of bible studies and baptisms, I felt like I should have some type of reaction to the marble. I decided to try the next point of interest, a large wooden tomb where Jesus’ body is said to have rested on top of the marble slate.

After waiting in a long line, we were allowed inside a room that appeared to be gothic and dark and expressed the tone of something very important having happened there. Once again, I touched and kissed some sort of altar, and before I had time to think about what it could mean, I was ushered out of the room.

I walked into the tomb that is alleged to have been the spot of Jesus’ resurrection, which was essentially a dark cave. At this point, I was desperate for some kind of light to turn on within me. I wanted to find happiness in knowing that my sins were someone else’s problem and that I would have a better life in death, one where I would make money doing the things I loved and everyone knew my name. While my friend lit a Bethlehem candle on the fire around Jesus’ tomb, which was meant to protect her grandmother from ill health, I decided to break away from the group and found a lonely alcove for some person reflection.

I knew hundreds of Christians from my small Southern hometown that would pray for a lifetime to get their quivering little hands on the spiritual power floating around this place. Me, I found more spiritual depth in the cracked smiles of freeway homeless or a group of young children leaving a school bus than I did in this big solemn church. I had no deep biblical knowledge of what this all meant, but I decided that if there were any spiritual power in the church, it had been sucked dry by the flashing cameras and crying tourists. I knew this was a dangerous train of thought and that having a religious breakdown in Jerusalem was a very common occurrence.

It’s called Jerusalem Syndrome. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that’s been scrutinized by psychologists since the 1930’s. It occurs to numerous adventurers and travelers, who after a lifetime of exposure to religion, will have a neurotic breakdown. The individual will begin hearing voices, and in most cases, believe they are a divine player in religious ideologies.

Luckily for me, it was the same at the Wailing Wall. I walked past the security guards as my Arab friend was searched. I put on a Yamaka and walked past the soldiers taking photographs and people crying in religious fanaticism. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I almost decided not go up to the wall, but I had come so far and was even wearing the hat, so I had to do something. I wrote a small prayer for world peace and placed it in the wall, I even kissed it.

That evening, as we drank tea and watched the sunset from the rooftop of our hostel, I thought of everything the city stood for. I thought of how many lives ended due to religious conflicts and my inability to understand religion. I was watching the young Arab boys playing in the courtyard, when I heard a voice, clear and commanding telling me to open the door, that I had locked them out. For a moment, I believed it was god, but I was relieved that it was only the young man from Texas with whom we shared a room.

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