An Irish cy­clist has gone miss­ing in the Negev desert, leav­ing a trail of re­li­gious clues

Fortean Times - - Strange Days -

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.

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