VANISHED IN THE HOLY LAND
An Irish cyclist has gone missing in the Negev desert, leaving a trail of religious clues
Oliver McAfee, 29, from Dromore in County Down, Northern Ireland, went missing in late November while cycling through the Negev desert in southern Israel and has not been seen or heard from since. He gave up his gardening job in Essex in April to cycle across Europe and had covered about 8,700 miles (14,000 km) on what friends described as a voyage of personal discovery. It was initially thought that McAfee, a devout Christian, got lost while following a cycling path, but later clues led Israeli authorities to believe he chose to disappear into the desert.
His family contacted Israeli police about his disappearance in late December, prompting a search using drones, dogs and dozens of volunteers. The search team discovered a series of pages ripped from the Bible carefully weighed down with rocks in the area that he was last seen. Other handwritten notes quoting Bible verses were also discovered. Some of the notes included references to the story of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and 40
The search team found a series of pages ripped from the Bible
nights. Could McAfee be holed up in one of the caves that dot the landscape? The search team scoured the text in vain for clues. They also found what they described as “a chapel” apparently made by McAfee on top of a rocky desert ridge outside the town of Mitzpe Ramon. He had cleared a circular area of stones and used a bicycle tool to carefully flatten the sand. “He seems to have been doing all kinds of ceremonies that we don’t really understand,” said one of the team. McAfee was last seen on 21 November, by an American tourist. His bicycle, hiking boots, camera, keys and wallet were recovered, but not his phone or his passport. The fact that his passport hasn’t turned up yet has given his family and friends hope and they know he has not left Israel, because officials say his passport has not crossed a border.
• The biblical clues led to the suspicion that McAfee might be suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome [see FT118:21,
129:47], a well-documented mental phenomenon where visitors to the Holy Land suffer religious delusions, including the belief that they are figures from the Bible or harbingers of the End Times. They may feel compelled to start preaching on the streets of the city. A police spokesman said: “We know [McAfee] was in Jerusalem and slept out in different areas – he didn’t go from hotel to hotel.”
Examples of Jerusalem Syndrome include: an Irish schoolteacher who came to a Jerusalem hospital convinced she was about to give birth to the Baby Jesus when in fact she was not even pregnant; a Canadian tourist who believed he was the strongman Samson and tried to tear stone blocks out of the Wailing Wall; and an Austrian man who flew into a rage in his hotel kitchen when staff refused to prepare the Last Supper for him.
Israel’s health ministry records around 50 cases a year where a tourist’s delusions are so strong that police or mental health professionals are forced to intervene. Many more incidents go undocumented on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Evidence of the syndrome dates back to mediæval times and observers throughout the centuries have noted the air of madness that seems to hang over the city. As JE Hanauer, a British traveller and Anglican vicar, wrote in about 1870: “It is an odd fact that many Americans who arrive at Jerusalem are either lunatics or lose their mind thereafter.” Modern psychiatrists describe the sufferer’s delusions as highly theatrical and very public. They will often rip hotel bed sheets into makeshift togas, deliver impromptu sermons in front of holy sites and go wailing through the streets. Curiously, the affliction has been recorded among Jews and Christians but not Muslims. A study from 1999 found that “Although Jerusalem is sacred to all three major monotheistic religions… no documentation regarding the syndrome among Muslims was found.”
The majority of those who are hospitalised suffered mental health problems in their own countries and came to Jerusalem deliberately on what they saw as a mission from God. The afflicted are mostly harmless, but occasionally they become violent. Dr Moshe Kalian, the former district psychiatrist for Jerusalem, described a British man who interpreted the ash cloud thrown over Europe by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano, as a sign that world was coming to an end. Once the ash cloud cleared and air travel resumed, he flew to Jerusalem and headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. He planned to enter the Church and be killed by Satan, triggering Armageddon. However, by the time he arrived, the church’s heavy wooden doors were closed for the night. The unnamed man then took a knife and charged at Israeli police. They shot him in the side and sent him to a psychiatric hospital, from which he was eventually returned to Britain without charges.
The most contentious point of debate among scholars of Jerusalem Syndrome is what one group of doctors has called Type III cases: people with no history of mental illness who become overwhelmed by the city’s religiosity and temporarily lose their minds. “The third type of Jerusalem Syndrome is perhaps the most fascinating,” wrote the psychiatrists from Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre, the Jerusalem hospital where most sufferers are treated. They have recorded 42 cases of people who arrived in Jerusalem as regular tourists, suffered severe psychotic episodes while there, and then recovered completely after leaving the city.
Of the 42 individuals, 40 were from what doctors described as “ultra-religious” Protestant families. Among them was a Swiss lawyer who arrived in Jerusalem as part of a tour of the Mediterranean. He spent a perfectly happy week with friends in Greece before reaching Jerusalem, where he became obsessed with ritual purity and started wearing sheets as a gown and calling out verses from the Bible. Within days he recovered and went on with his group to Egypt, apparently never suffering any mental health problems again. Dr Kalian and others are sceptical of this “pure” form of the syndrome and argue that the patients are more likely to have had some underlying psychiatric condition. “Jerusalem Syndrome should be regarded as an aggravation of a chronic mental illness and not a transient psychotic episode,” they wrote.
Comparable phenomena have been found in other cities. Stendhal Syndrome describes the breakdowns that art-lovers sometimes suffer in Florence when confronted by the grandeur of Renaissance frescoes. Japanese tourists in Paris sometimes have manic episodes when they realise a city they have idealised as the most romantic place on Earth contains all the rubbish, traffic and overcrowding of any other major urban area. Known as Paris Syndrome, the affliction is thought to be exacerbated by jetlag and the cultural and language barriers in the way of Japanese visitors. Neither condition, however, is as severe or as frequently observed as Jerusalem Syndrome. D.Telegraph, 27 Mar 2016, 17 Jan 2018; Belfast Telegraph Digital, 16 Jan; BBC News, 17 Jan 2018.
ABOVE: The Negev seen from Mitzpe Ramon. ABOVE: Bible pages weighed down with rocks. OPPOSITE: Oliver McAfee.