Christian Tourist Missing in Israel May Think He's a Biblical Figure Due to Bizarre 'Jerusalem Syndrome'

A 29-year-old man is missing in the Israeli desert and friends and family are worried the traveler has “Jerusalem syndrome,” psychosis induced by visiting the Holy Land.

According to the BBC, Oliver McAfee left England, and his gardening job, in April to bicycle across Europe. Last his family knew, McAfee was traveling through southern Israel. When they stopped hearing from him last November, they thought he was lost, reported The Telegraph.

GettyImages-903284990 The Dome of the Rock mosque on January 10. Some visitors to Jerusalem are so overwhelmed by the holy city, they suffer from Jerusalem syndrome. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Related: What Causes Mental Illness? Scientists Hope Lab-Grown Mini Brains Will Help Them Find Out

Israeli police found ripped Bible pages kept in place with rocks in the vicinity that McAfee was last known to be. Handwritten notes with Bible verses referencing Jesus fasting in the desert were also found but offered no clues about McAfee’s whereabouts. The Telegraph reported that a makeshift chapel was discovered on top of a desert ridge, which investigators believe was made by McAfee. A circle of stones found in the area are thought to have been used for a religious service.

These traces have led police to believe McAfee, who is Christian, has Jerusalem syndrome. “He seems to have been doing all kinds of ceremonies that we don’t really understand,” Raz Arbel, a member of a volunteer-led search team, told The Telegraph.

Jerusalem syndrome is a mental disorder characterized by delusions, fantasies or other similar states of mind triggered by visiting the region, as a report in The British Journal of Psychiatry explained.

As the report detailed, the syndrome manifests itself in different ways. Sufferers could be convinced they are biblical figures, like Ronald Hodge who started referring to himself as the Messiah during his time in Israel, Wired reported in 2012. After turning 40 and experiencing the dissolution of his marriage, Hodge (who was given a pseudonym by the publication) turned to the Bible for comfort and embarked on a trip to Jerusalem. There, he began referring to himself as the Messiah and received treatment at Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem. 

Others may become obsessed with an idea or duty that they need to fulfill.  

In 2007, Dr. Pesach Lichtenberg, who was the head of men’s psychiatry at Herzog Medical Center at the time, told NPR that many sufferers feel a relentless need to make the world better.

“And certain fantasies, redemption fantasies of making the world a better place overcome them, and they believe they have a messianic mission which they must fulfill, which can cause problems,” he said. “And this can happen sometimes to people who showed no sign of any sort of mental illness before this. And more often it will happen to people who have already been diagnosed and have had problems with their adjustment before coming to Jerusalem.”

McAfee was battling depression, The Telegraph reports, and the trip was intended to help. His family was expecting him home on December 1, but McAfee never showed up. Since friends and family contacted police in late December, volunteers searchers and official investigators have been looking for the 29-year-old. A Facebook group has been set up to help with the search.

The Israeli police found McAfee's bike, hiking boots, camera and wallet, but he may still have his passport and cell phone.

Join the Discussion