The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, to St. Letoius, Bishop of Melitene (4th century)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Anna M. Silva, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters Introduction, Translation and Commentary, pp. 211-225


 Letter 31 To Letoius bishop of Melitene

Gregory’s authorship of the letter to Letoius has always been acknowledged. It was originally a genuine letter, called forth in the same sort of circumstances as Basil’s letters 188, 199 and 217 to Amphilochius, i.e. it is the considered response of an authoritative senior bishop to the questions of a new and inexperienced bishop on the Church’s administration of penance.

That this letter was preserved, such as it is, is due to a decision by an unknown canonist in Constantinople who in late 6th century (c. 580) revised John Scholasticus’ pioneering work in codification of Church law, the Synagoge L titulorum. Scholasticus had added certain letters of Basil to Amphilochius to the decisions of church councils. The unknown canonist took a cue from this and in his own work, the Synagoge in XIV titles (also called Syntagma XIV titulorum), added excerpts from a wider range of Church Fathers. One of these was Gregory of Nyssa’s letter to Letoius in the form we now know it, minus its original introduction and divided into eight ‘canons’. All the subsequent transmission of the letter stems from this edition.

The addressee, Letoius, was Otreius’ successor as bishop of Melitene. Gregory wrote letters 10 and 18 to Otreius, who was a participant in the council of 381 and was named with Gregory and Helladius in the imperial edict Cod. Theod 16.1.3 as a guarantor of orthodoxy in eastern Anatolia and Syria. Gregory surely felt his passing deeply and very probably mentioned him in the lost introduction. Letoius wrote a letter to Gregory which included a series of questions on the administration of penance in the Church. This letter is Gregory’s reply. The exchange gives the impression of coming early, even very early in Letoius’ term as bishop. From the opening remarks (1a), it might be guessed that Letoius is yet to face his first Easter as bishop. He was seeking authoritative help in fulfilling his duties at that focal point of the Church’s year. These duties included the conferral of baptism and the readmission to communion of penitents who had completed their due penance (1b).

The dating of Letoius’ accession to the episcopate is a matter of some conjecture. He appears in Theodoret Church History 4.10 in association with Amphilochius of Iconium and Flavian of Antioch in combating the spread of Messalianism among the monks. He is mentioned also in Theodoret’s Haereticarum fabularum compendium PG 83, 335–556 at 432, and by Photius in Bibl. Cod. 52. Photius reports his reading of a letter sent to Flavian from a synod convened at Side in Lycaonia by Amphilochius at which Messalianism was condemned as heretical. (ca. 383-390).

One of the admirable features of this letter is the preamble in which Gregory succinctly and eloquently sketches a spiritual anthropology which is the perspective in which to approach the administration of penance in the church. The ruling idea is not that of enacting the legal decisions of a tribunal but that of a spiritual physician diagnosing and treating spiritual illnesses and verifying progress by appropriate signs of spiritual health. This is seen most of all in terms of the penitent’s own prohairesis, his choice or will. The process of penance is meant to be a spiritual education. It is set squarely in terms of the human vocation to resist the slide into vice and to contend for virtue and beyond that in terms of the Christian vocation to transformation in Christ that is valid for all Christians at all times.


Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups (Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., 2006)

NOTE: This article is taken from the book, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. It was adapted from a checklist originally developed by Michael Langone.


Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural,
social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioural patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.

Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

St. Anthony's Monastery Feast Day (early - mid-2000s)

[x]  The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. [Blind obedience to Geronda Ephraim and his teachings is the foundation and essence of his “family.” Many times, he is equated with Christ, and more emphasis is placed on his books and cassette homilies than the Bible].

Disciples are taught that blind obedience to Geronda Ephraim and his teachings are a prerequisite for salvation.
Disciples are taught that blind obedience to Geronda Ephraim and his teachings are a prerequisite for salvation.

[x]   Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. [Questioning or talking negatively about Geronda is equated with Luciferian egoism. Both acts are punished with prostrations, the Lity and in some cases, the other monastics will be instructed they have no blessing to talk to the dissenter].

[x]  Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). A monastic, and lay person if possible, must ceaselessly recite the Jesus Prayer 24/7, either mentally or vocally. Within the monasteries, there is also the daily 1/2 hour-3 hour breathing/meditative exercise of Prayer of the Heart. Work hours are long and excessive with the purpose to “exhaust the flesh and carnal desires.”

[x]   The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). Though the dictation of one’s life, thoughts and feelings is much stricter for monastic disciples, lay spiritual children under Geronda Ephraim still need blessings for minute details of their lives–dating, getting a job, how to discipline children, etc. The spiritual Father has the last say–he can order one to break up with someone, not take a job, buy a car, house, etc., all for “the spiritual benefit of their spiritual child.”


[x]  The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity). [Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are the “last bastion of authentic, traditional monasticism in the world.” It is generally taught and believed that “Geronda Ephraim is the holiest man in the world, and the last great saint of the Orthodox Church.” Spiritual children are taught that after the “False Union” that is coming, and especially in the days of the Antichrist, one will only be able to find true Orthodoxy in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries; “everywhere else will be apostate, unionist, pseudo-Orthodox churches.”

[x]   The group has a polarised us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. “Those who aren’t with us are against us.” Essentially, the ecumenist and mainstream hierarchs, priests, Archons, AHEPA, freemasons, Zionists, CIA, etc. are inspired by demons to stop the salvific work of the monasteries and end Geronda Ephraim’s Apostolic work here.


[x]  The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations). Though technically accountable to his Hierarch, it is generally accepted in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries that because he is a saint, he is not really bound by Canons, obedience to worldly hierarchs or jurisdictions. Anytime he overrides a hierarch or synodal canon/decree, it is generally accepted that he either received an obedience or a blessing from the Panagia, or Christ Himself.

[x]   The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities). A book can be written about all the white collar crime, falsified  documents, lies, cover-ups, lawsuits, etc. A monastic can average lying once to a dozen times a day, all blessed via obedience. This is even more so for the monastic who answers phones. The Gerondissa or Geronda many times will instruct them, “If anyone calls, tell them you don’t know where I am or I am out of the monastery for the day, and take a message.” Meanwhile, they’re in their cell all day. The one answering the phone knows this, but lies, or rather does obedience, and says whatever they are told.

TX 1998

[x]   The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. The superior “rebukes in and out of season,” namely, one gets humbled, insulted and yelled at when they’ve erred, but also when they’ve done nothing wrong, as a test. Private confessions are revealed to other monastics at the “discernment” of the Elder, whether in a group setting to humble the individual, or without the individual’s presence and more as gossip.

[x]   Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. This is a requirement of all monastic novices. Though certain monastics have special privileges and can keep close familial communications and connections.

[x]   The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. More with pilgrims–monastery tourism. In the first years, there was a drive for monastic recruitment but that has dwindled due to all the problems and issues that have occurred in the various monasteries. “In the beginning it was about quantity, now it is about quality.”

Fundraising Event held on January 13, 2013 by Friends of the Monastery from St-Mary's Antiochian Orthodox church in Montreal.

[x]   The group is preoccupied with making money. The monasteries are all incorporated and they function like corporations. Besides the dependency on donations, the monasteries have all ventured into various business endeavors and projects to help earn more profits to help build bigger and better buildings and chapels.

[x]  Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. This is non-negotiable for the monastics. With lay people, if they want to remain in the monasteries good books, they should comply to any favor asked of them. Noncompliance brings about passive aggressive guilt tripping. Continual noncompliance or making excuses when help is needed can result in the monastery distancing themselves from the individual.

[x]   Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialise only with other group members. “Bad company corrupts good habits.”

[x]  The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group. Geroinda Ephraim has stated that those who stay with him until the end will be saved; this is based on a vision. Monastics are taught and believe that if they leave the monastic life, there is no hope for salvation for them. Lay people are taught that Geronda Ephraim and his father confessors are the only ones in America with the spiritual experience to help guide them to salvation and theosis.


Psychogenes & Cultural Evolution (Joseph Giovannoli, 2000)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions, pp. 181-205

Biology of belief

Cultures do not spontaneously self-assemble. They evolve through the efforts of generations to create the complex of coherent commerce, communications, and institutions for which each society is known. Each new generation must be educated to receive the culture and to pass it on. It can be lost if just one generation fails to sustain it. So too, reversals of fortune may damage or destroy it. The sustaining bounty of Nature can change with weather or with a more abrupt natural disaster. Harbors can choke with silt. Natural resources can be depleted or squandered. Trade routes can change, leaving prosperous civilizations to wither. New technology in the hands of competitors can lead to economic or military ruin. Institutions essential to social organization may evolve to serve themselves instead of society. The failure or corruption of religious, social, political, or economic leadership can lead to social decay, class conflict, disunity, or destructive wars. Whether written or oral, symbolic or explicit, the essence of any society can be found in its psychogenes. Japanese psychologist Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto observed that “[L]argely unspoken, collective assumptions about appropriate social behavior vary greatly from one country or geographic to another…”1 While Westerners value personal independence, Easterners value social interdependence. A few relevant Western psychogenes emphasize individuality, independence, and personal achievement. Counterpart Japanese psychogenes subordinate individuality to an interconnected social web and stress sensitivity to the expectations of others concerning right and wrong behavior. Shinobu Kitayama thinks that

This cultural perspective appears in various forms throughout East Asia. Its adherents tend to write off the European-American pursuit of self-esteem as an immature disregard for the relationships that nurture self-identify…2

Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto
Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto

Although psychogenetic evolution is faster than biological evolution, it often takes a number of generations to observe fundamental psychogenetic change. From about 750 BCE to 1600 CE, Italian beliefs experienced many fundamental changes as Italy evolved from a republic phase to an empire phase starting with Julius Caesar, then through decline to Christian domination in the Dark and Middle ages, and then to the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern philosophy and science. We will consider the psychogenetic influences that gave rise to the Roman state, the consequences of conquering Greece and assimilating its culture, the psychogenetic influence of the rise of Christianity, and the influence of Greco-Roman beliefs on Italian psychogenes during the Renaissance.

roman virtues

Early Roman Psychogenes

In about 753 BCE, Rome began as a small town in central Italy about 20 miles from the sea. Although it may have begun as an Etruscan town, it is said that Latins used it as a defense against Etruscan expansion. Its origins are not clear. Eugene Weber of the University of California at Berkeley described early Roman core beliefs as follows:

The virtues the Romans admired were all related to discipline and self-discipline. They believed in “Pietas”—respect for established authority and tradition. They believed in “Fides”—being true to your responsibilities; in “Religio”—the common belief[s] that bind men together; and above all in “Gravitas”—the sober seriousness that marks a real man. Even the word “Virtus” means manliness…True virtue subordinates the person to the city, the individual to the state…The Romans were a conservative people and so they wanted strong leaders, but not too strong.3

Armed with Pietas, Fides, Religio, and Gravitas they encountered the world, and more by evolution than design, they conquered it. In the process, Roman practices changed the agriculture, settlement patterns, and interregional economics of conquered lands. Formerly independent regions conformed to the Roman model. Large farming estates replaced smaller farmsteads. Roman economic and military considerations dislocated populations and altered traditions, as selected cities became bureaucratic and commercial centers. As new administrative centers and trade routes brought some old cities into the republic, other cities withered. Change created wealth for some and new tax burdens for others. As with assimilation at other times in human history, old boundaries, beliefs, traditions, and cultural identities were transformed.4

The full article can be read here:

Persistent Frontal Suture Once Again Misrepresented as an “Orthodox Miracle” and “Testimony of Holiness” (Geronda Evdokimos of St. Savvas Lavra)

On the website Apanta Orthodoxias, there is an article displaying the picture of a monk’s skull with persistent frontal suture. This article states that this “sign of the cross” is a miracle and testifies to the holiness of this monk. This is similar to the misinformation “miracle” stories taught to pilgrims at Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries—i.e., that persistent frontal suture is a miracle exclusive to orthodoxy and occurs only to priests (or, depending on who is telling the story, only priest-monks or only priest-monks on Mount Athos). As stated in a previous article, Persistent Frontal Suture is found all over the world. Many times the skulls belonged to people who were non-Orthodox and even non-Christian. See: Furthermore, many female adult skulls also have Persistent Frontal Suture (thus ruling out the “only Orthodox Priest” theory). It is not an “Orthodox miracle,” nor does it represent “sanctity.” Though uncommon, it does occur throughout the world in both female and male non-orthodox populations. Just because a monk states Persistent Frontal Suture is an orthodox miracle doesn’t validate it as a miracle; it is inaccurate and misleading:

Skull of an orthodox martyr with Persistent Frontal Suture.
Skull of an orthodox martyr with Persistent Frontal Suture.

The website states:

“Fr. Ignatios look at the cross that has been created on top of the holy skull of the righteous monk! This cross declares the holiness of the martyr!!!”

Skull of an orthodox martyr with Persistent Frontal Suture.
Skull of an orthodox martyr with Persistent Frontal Suture.
Non-Orthodox  Brazil Complete metopic suture (arrow)
Non-Orthodox Brazilian Skull Complete metopic suture (arrow)

In our Exarchate in Cyprus, we left the holy skull of an anonymous saint, from the “Martyrdom of the 44 Holy Sabaite fathers, monk-martyrs of the Great Lavra of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, massacred by the Saracens (Blemmyes) (610 or 614). The blessed Patraiarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus gave the order for the holy skull to remain there forever. He gave the command to Fr. Evdokimos, the spiritual father of the Holy Monastery. While we were already in Cyprus in the Exarchate, we celebrated a holy vigil in memory of the Holy Martyrs on May 16th. It was so peaceful and compunctionate.

Skull of an orthodox martyr with Persistent Frontal Suture.
Skull of an orthodox martyr with Persistent Frontal Suture.
Non-Orthodox South Indian Skulls with Persistent Frontal Suture
Non-Orthodox South Indian Skulls with Persistent Frontal Suture

Fr. Evdokimos had left with His Beatitude for the Holy Land, and before leaving he told me, “Fr. Ignatios look at the cross that has been created on top of the holy skull of the righteous monk! This cross declares the holiness of the martyr!!!”

Patriarch Theodosios & Geronda Evdokios (wearing cross).
Patriarch Theodosios & Geronda Evdokios (wearing cross).

According to Geronda Evdokimos’ statement, these skulls of non-Orthodox men and women with Persistent Frontal Suture from India, Thailand and Brazil can be assumed to declare their holiness and sanctity. Based upon Geronda Evdokimos’ teaching, these skulls of non-orthodox men and women are “holy relics.”

Persistent Frontal Suture in Northeastern Thai Adult
Persistent Frontal Suture in Northeastern Thai Adult

As explained in a previous article, frontal suture is a dense connective tissue structure that divides the two halves of the frontal bone of the skull in infants and children. It usually disappears by the age of six, with the two halves of the frontal bone being fused together. It is also called the metopic suture, although this term may also refer specifically to a persistent frontal suture. In some individuals the suture can persist (totally or partly) into adulthood, and in these cases it is referred to as a persistent metopic suture. The suture can either bisect the frontal bone and run from nasion to bregma or persist as a partial metopic suture (see image of frontal bone) (where part of the suture survives and is connected to either bregma or nasion) or as an isolated metopic fissure. Persistent frontal sutures are of no clinical significance, although they can be mistaken for cranial fractures. As persistent frontal sutures are visible in radiographs, they can be useful for the forensic identification of human skeletal remains. Persistent frontal sutures should not be confused with supranasal sutures (a small zig-zag shaped suture located at and/or immediately superior to the glabella).

More non-orthodox skulls with Persistent Frontal Suture
More non-orthodox skulls with Persistent Frontal Suture
Non-orthodox skull with Persistent Frontal Suture
Non-orthodox skull with Persistent Frontal Suture

Incidence of Metopism in Different Ethnic Groups

Persistent Frontal Suture Sources

The incidence of the metopism and difference in shapes varies by races.

Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land (Claudine Dauphin, 1995)

NOTE: This research piece by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris explores both the formal and informal arrangements that developed, typically centring around the triad of the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. The article is taken from Classics Ireland, Volume 3 (1996):



For Baths in illuminated manuscripts, see Theologizing or Indulging Desire: Bathers in the Sacra Parallela (Paris, BnF, gr. 923):

The Sacra Parallela is a theological and ascetic florilegium of biblical (OT and NT) and patristic citations related to a now-lost model entitled Hiera, composed in Palestine by John of Damascus (ca. 675 – ca. 749). The only known copy is a ninth-century manuscript (Paris, BnF, gr. 923) thought to have been produced in a Greek monastery in Italy, possibly in Rome.1 The text contains three treatises— one on God and the Trinity, another on man, and a third on vices and virtues. The scriptural and exegetical citations are arranged in alphabetical order by στοιχεῖα (alphabetical letters) and τίτλοι (titles). The manuscript, lavishly decorated with miniatures executed in a schematized style, represents a defined group of scenes depicting male and female bathers, which, modeled after Graeco-Roman formulae, have never been discussed in light of their value for gender studies.

Spiritual Fathers Who Are Defiled Along With Their Children (Peter Damian, 1049)

NOTE: The following article is the 6th and 7th chapters of Liber Gomorrhians (Book of Gomorrah), an 11th-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices:

Book of Gomorrah

O unheard of crime! O outrage to be mourned with a whole fountain of tears! If those who consent to the ones doing these things are to be punished with death, what torment could be thought fitting for those  who commit these great evils with their spiritual children—evils to be punished with damnation? What fruitfulness can still be found in the flocks when the shepherd is so deeply sunk in the belly of the devil? Who would still remain under the rule of one who, he knew, was separated from God as an enemy? Whoever makes a mistress out of a penitent whom he had spiritually borne as a child for God subjects the servant tp the iron rule of diabolical tyranny through the impurity of his flesh. If someone violates a woman whom he raised from the sacred font, is it not determined that he be deprived of communion without delay, and ordered to pass through public penance by censure of the sacred canons? For it is written: spiritual generation is greater than carnal.

Likewise it follows that the same sentence is justly inflicted both on one who has ruined a natural daughter and on one who has corrupted a spiritual daughter through a sacrilegious union, unless perhaps in this matter the quality of each crime is distinguished, since, although sinning incestuously, nevertheless, they each sinned naturally because they sinned with a woman. However, anyone who commits a sacrilege with his son is guilty of the crime of incest with a male and breaks the laws of nature. And it seems to me to be more tolerable to fall into shameful lust with an animal than a male.1 That is, one who perishes alone is judged much more lightly than one who also draws another along with himself to disastrous ruin. In fact, it is a sad situation where the ruin of one person depends in this way n the ruin of another so that while one is destroyed the other necessarily follows to death close behind.

Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.
Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.


However, that the arguments of diabolical fraud might not be hidden, I will bring into the light what was fashioned secretly in the workshop of ancie4tn wickedness. I do not accept that this hidden thing should go on, namely, that certain ones who are filled with the poison of this crime, as if taking heart, should confess to one another to keep the knowledge of their guilt from becoming known to others. While they shame the face of men, the authors of this guilt themselves become the judges. The indiscreet indulgence which each desires to be applied to himself, he rejoices to bestow on the other through a delegated change of roles. So it happens that although they ought to be penitents for their great crimes, nonetheless their faces do not pale with fasting, nor do their bodies waste away with thinness. While the belly is in no way restrained from the immoderate reception of food, the spirit is shamefully inflamed to the ardour of habitual lust,2 with the result that the one who had shed no tears for what was committed continues to commit more seriously what should be mourned.

But is a precept of the Law that when a person is covered with leprosy he be shown to the priests (Lev. 14:2). Now, however, he is shown to the leprous rather than to the priests since the impure confess to the impure the wickedness they committed together.3 But since confession is also a manifestation, what, I ask, does he manifest who tells the listener what is known; in what way is it to be called a confession where nothing is revealed by the one making the confession except what the listener already knows? Besides, by what law, by what right can he who is bound by the social bond of the evil deed bind or loose the other? Vainly does he strive to loose another while he himself is ensnared in chains. If anyone wishes to be a guide for a blind person, it is necessary that he himself see lest he cause the one following to fall, as the voice of Truth says, “If one blind man guide another, both fall into a pit” (Luke 6:39). And again, “You see the speck in your brother’s eye, and yet miss the plank in your own. Hypocrite, remove the plank from your own eye first; then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

It is evident from these Gospel witnesses that those shrouded in the darkness of the same guilt strive in vain to recall each other to the light of penance.4 And while he is not afraid of perishing by leading another astray beyond his own powers, the one who follows does not escape the pit of present ruin along with him.

Illumination from Liber Gomorrhianus
Illumination from Liber Gomorrhianus


1. Perhaps an explicit contradiction of the “Second Diocesan Statute” of Theodulf of Orleans which reads, “For just as it is more abominable to mix with a mule than a male, so it is a more irrational crime to mix with a male than with a female.”

2. Elsewhere, Damian provides a detailed account of the relationship between eating and sexual arousal; see Letter 1.15 (PL 144, 230B-32A).

3.The Migne edition (PL 145, 190B-D) adds a comment to this passage, which also applies to what immediately follows, suggesting that Peter Damian is not claiming that the confessions performed by such priests are invalid. The scholion applies particularly to the statement a few sentences later, “Vainly does he strive to loose another while he himself is ensnared in chains.” The scholion is probably correct, particularly when we recall the string defense Damian made of the validity of the ministrations by simoniacal priests in his Opusc. 6.

4. Literally, “whoever is shrouded in the darkness of the same guilt strives in vain to recall another to the light of penance.”

Lot's Wife

Jerusalem Syndrome (Judith Fein, 2000)

The Jerusalem Syndrome was first clinically identified by Dr. Yair Bar El, formerly director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital. Bar El studied 470 tourists who were referred for treatment between 1979 and 1993. On the basis of his work with these visitors, who had been declared temporarily insane, Bar El reached some fascinating conclusions.

Dr. Yair Bar El
Dr. Yair Bar El

Of the 470 visitors from all over the world who were hospitalized, 66 percent were Jews, 33 percent were Christians and one percent had no known religious affiliation. Bar El is quick to point out that it is not only tourists who demonstrate behaviour that indicates the Jerusalem Syndrome; in fact local residents can be temporarily or permanently affected as well.

The peak time for visitors who are “intoxicated” by the Holy City is, not surprisingly, during the holiday seasons – Christmas, Jewish High Holy days, Easter and Passover – or during the summer months of July and August. Bar El divides the patients into two broad categories: those with previous psychiatric histories and those with no previous psychiatric history.

The pilgrim-tourists studied demonstrated remarkably similar patterns of disintegration and symptoms generally appeared on the second day of their stay in Jerusalem, when they began to feel an inexplicable nervousness and anxiety. If they came with a group or family they suddenly felt a need to be on their own and left the others.  They would often begin to perform acts of purification, or cleansing, such as immersion in a mikva (ritual bath). Often the patients changed their clothes in an effort to resemble biblical figures, for example dressing in white robes, because most of them chose to identify themselves with a character from the New or Old Testament. This type of behaviour does not, of course, inevitably lead to hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Indeed, most of those affected by the Jerusalem Syndrome do not cause any disturbance and are at worst a nuisance or a mild source of amusement. But a certain percentage of the people are severely disturbed and will often behave in a way that demands psychiatric intervention, at least temporarily.

Ernest Moch from California believes he is Elijah the Prophet
Ernest Moch from California believes he is Elijah the Prophet

Sometimes the Jerusalem Syndrome victim will have definite religious goals, others have political inclinations. Some patients adopt magical health views or individual religious requirements, self-written prayers and idiosyncratic customs.

An interesting sub-group consists of patients who have no previous psychiatric problems whatsoever. “Something just happened to me,” is a common response when such tourists begin psychotherapy. Bar El believes that the shock of facing the earthly Jerusalem can cause a psychiatric reaction which helped bridge the reality with the dream city.

Dr. Bar El noted that the Jerusalem Syndrome is similar to the “Florence Syndrome,” identified by Italian psychiatrists who long ago noticed a tendency among tourists and visitors to that city to act in a bizarre and irrational fashion. In Florence, however, the phenomenon seems to be triggered by art works and the beauty of the city itself, rather than religion.

Another Jerusalem psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan Scher, claims that many disturbed people flock to the Holy City seeking the special spiritual atmosphere that imbues the capital, especially the Old City. “Jerusalem is flooded by messiahs; those who come to meet him, to wait for him or to settle the turmoil in their own souls.

A wannabe Messiah walks the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City.
A wannabe Messiah walks the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City.


Jerusalem-syndrome (1)


The malady called Jerusalem Syndrome is no joke. Afflicted tourists have been found wandering in the Judean desert wrapped in hotel bed sheets or crouched at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, waiting to birth the infant Jesus.

I’m here at Kfar Shaul Hospital in Jerusalem, with Dr. Yair Bar-El, who gave the strange disorder its name. Dr. Bar-El looks eerily like Dr. Freud as he leans back in his chair, puffing on a cigar, with his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. He explains that there are three categories of tourists who get Jerusalem syndrome.

Dr. Bar El: “We speak first about clearly mentally ill people in their country. They arrive to Jerusalem with psychotic ideas. The second, the biggest group, tourists, pilgrims with deep religious convictions.”

Pilgrims who, in some cases, belong to bizarre fringe groups rather than regular churches. They were also mentally unbalanced before they arrived, and they believe they must do specific things to bring about major events like the coming of the Messiah, the war of Armageddon, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Bar-El: “We have a little third group, the REAL Jerusalem syndrome. Completely sane persons without psychiatric history, without drugs, and arrive here as normal tourists. Here they develop this specific, imperative psychotic reaction that is the real Jerusalem Syndrome.”

The same clinical picture always emerges. It begins with general anxiety and nervousness, and then the tourist feels an imperative need to visit the holy places. First, he undertakes a series of purification rituals, like shaving all his body hair, cutting his nails and washing himself over and over before he dons white clothes. Most often, he lifts the white sheets from his hotel room. Then he begins to cry or to sing Biblical or religious songs in a very loud voice. The next step is an actual visit to the holy places, most often from the life of Jesus. The afflicted tourist begins to deliver a sermon, demanding that humanity become calmer, purer, and less materialistic.

Dr. Bar-El, says that besides their bizarre behavior, everything else about the tourists in normal:

Dr. Bar-El: “These persons develop the same clinical picture. They don’t see strange things, they don’t hear voices, they remember everything and all the time they know they’re John Smith or Yan Huber. They don’t think they’re another person and this reaction passes completely in five to seven days. “

Sometimes, the afflicted visitor is on a Mediterranean package tour which includes Greece, Egypt and Israel. He may be completely sane in Greece, he develops Jerusalem Syndrome in Israel, it passes in five days, and then he continues on with the group to Egypt.

In Israel, Jerusalem Syndrome is taken very seriously. Everyone involved in security, tourism, or health is on the lookout for afflicted visitors. In an average year, three or four tourists develop real, palpable Jerusalem Syndrome. In l999, more than 50 visitors were diagnosed, the increase possibly attributed to millennial activities.

From a religious point of view, the Syndrome seems to favor Protestants, who account for 97 percent of all cases. Almost all of them were raised in ultra-orthodox homes where the Bible was the book of choice for family reading and problem-solving.

Dr. Bar-El takes a long puff on his cigar and gets down to specific current cases.

Dr. Bar-El: “We have now here a woman, she was picked up by the police after she kicked and beat some persons at the side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They asked why and she says: ‘I am the Prophetess of the Olive Tree and I am a very powerful person. I announce the immediate arrival of Jesus Christ.’ This woman is here in a terrible anxiety state. She said that she must be out, under the influence of the sun and the moon and by this influence her branches will grow green. This is the symbol of the immediate arrival of Jesus Christ.”

She didn’t want to be taken inside because under a roof her branches would grow black, and that would be the sign of the anti-Christ. Another seemingly normal man is a teacher from Denmark.

Dr. Bar-El: “He arrives every year to Jerusalem because he said only here he can speak with the Virgin Mary. He doesn’t take trips to Lourdes, to Montserrat, no, only here. We speak with the person a lot. A completely sane person only with this idee fixe.”

Bar-El talks about a memorable case which actually led to one of the first instances of collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli police. The Palestinians found a man without clothes, money or ID, and, after interrogation, they figured out he wasn’t a security risk. They had no idea what to do with him, so they contacted an Israeli officer. The Israeli asked only one question: “Is the guy really completely nude?” “No,” answered the Palestinian, “he’s wearing an animal skin.” “Oh,” said the Israeli, “you’ve got another John the Baptist.” It was the sixth John the Baptist the Israelis had run into. They usually did days of purification between Jerusalem and the Galilee before ending up at the Jordan River to baptize Jesus or the first Christians, and part of the trek was through Palestinian territory.

John The Baptist is the most popular Jerusalem syndrome choice for Christian men. Christian women prefer the Virgin Mary. For Jews of both sexes, the identification is generally with the Messiah.

One day, Bar-El decided to perform a classical experiment. He put two would-be Messiahs in a room together for an hour to see if one would prevail.

Dr. Bar-El: “I said, ‘Okay, you must make the decision. Who’s the real Messiah?’ Every person said, after this hour, ‘I am the real Messiah. He’s an imposter.’ “

I am shown around the wards, and then introduced to Russian-born Dr. Gregory Katz, who talks about the treatment:

Dr. Katz: “Sometimes we give some minor tranquilizers and melatonin if the person’s also in jet lag. If we see that it’s a real psychotic episode, we give anti-psychotic drugs.”

Jerusalem Syndrome is posing an unexpected economic problem for Israel. Who is supposed to pay for the treatment of the afflicted tourists?

Dr. Katz: “Some of them, usually that come from Scandinavia, have good insurance. But some of them come from the U.S. and don’t have medical insurance or it’s not sufficient and doesn’t cover psychiatric treatment. Then the State of Israel pays for it, including an escorting person back to the U.S., usually a psychiatrist and all the expenses.”

No one is certain about exactly what causes Jerusalem Syndrome. Perhaps it’s jarring for a serious Bible student to arrive in modern-day Israel where, instead of prophets in sandals, he hears businessmen discussing profits on cell phones. Or maybe it’s the fact that Jerusalem has always been a magnet for messianic messages, and visitors get carried away.

For the moment, there are no clear answers and the emphasis is on rapid and effective diagnosis and treatment.

At Kfar Shaul Hospital in Jerusalem, this is Judie Fein for The Savvy Traveler.