The Negev desert was imposing, but Moses sent 12 scouts to survey the rolling dunes in what is now Israel to search for sanctuary, the story in the Hebrew Bible goes.
Now the region is being combed by an entirely different search operation following the bizarre disappearance of a devout Irish gardener in November. He may have suffered from Jerusalem Syndrome — a rare but unsettling psychotic episode in which tourists in Israel suffer delusions of grand religious missions and sometimes even believe they are biblical figures.
Oliver McAfee, a 29-year-old living in Essex, England, was due home in early December following a bicycle adventure along the Israel National Trail, a 631-mile pilgrimage running north to south that includes religious sites.
But he vanished in November, with few clues about his whereabouts. He was last seen on the trail near Mitzpe Ramon, and hikers found his bike, tent, clothes and other equipment, said Micky Rosenfeld, an Israel Police spokesman, who did not know the day McAfee was last seen. Media reports suggest other travelers last saw him Nov. 21.
McAfee’s phone, passport and sleeping bag have yet to be recovered, Rosenfeld said. Search teams — including helicopters, tracking dogs, police on horseback and rescuers roaring across the desert on 4×4 vehicles — have fanned out across the region to search for McAfee. “It’s pretty rough and tough terrain out there,” Rosenfeld said, adding that recent heavy rains and flash floods have complicated search efforts.
A photo on a Facebook page set up to gather information on McAfee’s whereabouts shows a prepared traveler: a bike hitched with storage bags, a full water bag, phone and what appears to be a navigational device on his handlebars. A billboard in Hebrew is in the background.
Researchers believe Jerusalem Syndrome is the result of a trio of circumstances: preexisting mental illness, strong religious beliefs and travel to Israel that sparks a psychotic state when encountering the intense religious history of Jerusalem. The condition has long been described by perplexed physicians and travelers, such as British author J.E. Hanauer, who noted around 1870: “It is an odd fact that many Americans who arrive at Jerusalem are either lunatics or lose their mind thereafter.”
More recently, the condition was spoofed in a 2010 episode of “The Simpsons” depicting Homer Simpson believing he was the next Messiah in a dehydration-fueled bout of hysteria.
There are hints McAfee’s actions may be linked to Jerusalem Syndrome, raising the possibility he may have deliberately disappeared into the harsh landscape. Volunteers recovered torn passages from the Bible weighed down by rocks, handwritten scripture and references to Jesus’ desert fasting, which lasted 40 days. Searchers also found what they called a “chapel” — a circular clearing flattened by a bicycle tool, the Daily Telegraph reported.
“He seems to have been doing all kinds of ceremonies that we don’t really understand,” said Raz Arbel, a volunteer search team leader, according to the Telegraph. The report also said Moshe Kalian, a former district psychiatrist for Jerusalem, said McAfee’s trail of documents suggested “some kind of religious experience in the desert” akin to Jerusalem Syndrome.
In one case, an American man who visited Jerusalem and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia believed he was Samson, the biblical figure with superhuman strength. He tried to move stones in the ancient city’s Western Wall and was later arrested and placed under psychiatric care, according to researchers Yair Bar-el, Rimona Durst, Gregory Katz and others writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000. “After receiving antipsychotic medication, he calmed down and was able to fly back home, escorted by his father,” they wrote, adding that about 100 cases of the syndrome occur a year.
In another moment of divine interference, Australian tourist Denis Michael Rohan in 1969 believed he was preparing for the Second Coming by setting fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites near the Western Wall.
“I fully understand the people who are skeptical about it,” said psychiatrist Katz, a co-author of the study who directs the emergency unit at Jerusalem’s Kfar Shaul hospital, where suspected suffers of the syndrome are diverted. “If I hadn’t seen it myself, I also would be very skeptical. But you can’t deny what you really see,” Katz said, according to CNN.
There may be explanations for the strange behavior in the brain. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, documented brain activity during moments of worship and religious thinking. The emotion regulator limbic system flourish while the front frontal lobe, which regulates judgment and decision-making, begins to shut down.
“In extreme cases, that can lead to hallucinations, where someone might believe they’re seeing the face of God or hearing voices,” Newberg told WIRED. “Your frontal lobe isn’t there to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound like a good idea.’ And the person winds up engaging in behaviors that are not their norm.”
There are loosely linked conditions, such as Paris Syndrome — a brief psychotic episode strangely affecting mostly Japanese tourists who encounter the City of Lights as just another metropolis with dirty streets and busy roadways far from the idealized city of travelers’ dreams.
McAfee’s brother, Matthew, told the Telegraph on Jan. 9 that McAfee’s camera was recovered, and what was depicted worried family members who said he experienced bouts of depression. “The nature of them is just a bit out of character and suggests he might not have been quite himself. One of them showed a lot of litter and debris around his camp and that was just not like him at all,” the Telegraph reported.
Rosenfeld, the Israel Police spokesman, would not elaborate on any search operations that may be affected by a missing person with a condition that may make their behavior unpredictable, and offered no details on how the syndrome may play a role.
Rescuers are treating the incident as a missing-person event, and are exploring all avenues for McAfee’s potential location, which could be a cave or other shelter, he said. Some people who venture off trails encounter cliffs and get disoriented and lost finding their way back, for instance, and there could be a reasonable explanation for his disappearance.
“Still, there are a lot of questions we don’t have answers to,” he said.