Gogol and Jerusalem Syndrome

Gogol and Jerusalem Syndrome

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As night fell over Jerusalem, a lone Russian traveller made his way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Absorbed in prayer, no-one paid much attention to this angular figure, with his mop of hair and large, hooked nose. Little did they know, but they were in the presence of one of the world’s greatest writers – Nikolai Gogol – and that his journey to the Holy Land would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Christian pilgrims re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem during Good Friday

By 1848, Gogol was an unhappy man.  A profound spiritual crisis overshadowed the commercial and critical success he had achieved with his collections of darkly comedic stories. It started with prolonged case of writer’s block.  Gogol had always been religious and gradually became convinced that his creative decline was God’s revenge for the wickedness of his writing.

Sinking further and further into depression, he decided that the only way to atone for his sins and recover his talent was to make the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So in midwinter he set sail from Russia and that February rode into the holy city on a donkey.

What he saw there shocked him.

Filth and Passion

Vereshchagin Royal Tombs in Jerusalem

Instead of the paradise-on-earth that he had expected, the Jerusalem that Gogol encountered was a dirty, inhospitable city, filled with beggars and touts.  Try as he might, he was unable to slake his thirst for spiritual nourishment. The dilapidated religious sites underwhelmed him and the arid countryside only worsened his depression.

Sitting in Nazareth as it poured with rain was no more moving than waiting for a train in Russia, he would later comment.

And so, utterly dejected, he returned home.

But he could not forget Jerusalem: the failure of his pilgrimage pushed Gogol to new extremes of religious mania.  Desperately seeking relief from his anguish, he fell under the influence of a powerful starets by the name of Matvey Konstantinovsky.

Gogol’s Mystical Tormentor

Gogol and Konstantinovsky by Ilya Repin

The startsy, Russian Orthodox elders, were not nominated by any official religious body – they were simply charismatic itinerants who had convinced ordinary folk that they were ‘of the Spirit’. Their saintly reputation, combined with their roles as teachers and advisors, made them extremely influential to the religiously inclined.

Gogol was obviously extremely vulnerable to such a man. Konstantinovsky reinforced Gogol’s belief that his literary works were the source of his misery and that pilgrimage would not be enough to show his dedication to God. One evening in a fit of madness Gogol threw the second volume of his magnum opus Dead Souls onto the fire – surely one of the worst losses world literature has even suffered.

He would later describe this as a ‘practical joke played on him by the devil’.

But still his torment would not cease. He tried to go one step further, and began to fast during Maslenitsa, a week in which Russians usually fatten themselves up with pancakes before Lent.


It was a step too far for a man who was borderline obsessed with food, and he couldn’t hold out. When he broke the fast his physical and mental state deteriorated so severely that his doctors saw no choice but to prescribe leeches and boiling baths in an attempt to snap him out of it. The treatment was a stunning failure, and the writer died on February 21, 1852, at the age of 42.Yolanda Delgano

Gogol Burning the Manuscript of the second volume of Dead Souls

Gogol’s was a sorry end, and it would mean that his name would forever be connected with the strange influence that Jerusalem has on its pilgrims.

But was he really suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome?

Jerusalem Syndrome

The answer is probably no. The dirty reality of Jerusalem shocked and disgusted Gogol, propelling him further down his path of self destruction.  But it is unlikely that the writer was suffering from anything more exotic than severe depression, which just so happened to reach its nadir in the Holy City.

The actual Jerusalem Syndrome elicits far more bizarre and disturbing syndromes.

Israeli tour guides keep their eyes peeled for early warning signs. Whilst showing foreign visitors around the ancient temples and monuments of the Old City, it is not uncommon for them to notice stragglers break away from the group.

These travellers insist that they want to – need to – see the city by themselves: they have an important mission to fulfil, apparently. The authorities know from experience that this is the time to act, and immediately direct them to psychiatric health units.

If they don’t spot the signs early enough, the inflicted often start to display bizarre manic-religious behaviour:

  • Anxiety, preoccupation, and a sudden obsession with being “clean”. Frequent and repeated bathing rituals, cutting hair, scrubbing hands, etc.

  • Cutting up linen to create makeshift togas, then wearing them outside

  • Processions to holy places in the city, like the Wailing Wall, where they give improvised sermons (often on sin and Judgement Day)

  • Delusions that they are the reincarnations of Biblical characters or even the Messiah. For example, one tourist believed he was Sampson and attempted to break down the Wailing Wall. Another, an Irish woman, was adamant that she was the Virgin Mary about to give birth to Jesus. Even medical evidence proving that she wasn’t pregnant could not convince her otherwise – her condition only began to disappear once she had left Jerusalem.

Israeli Praying Passionately by the Western Wall in Jerusalem

And that is perhaps the strangest thing of all. Once the afflicted are removed from Jerusalem, they almost invariably return to normal, with little recollection of their temporary insanity.  

Most cases of Jerusalem Syndrome are innocuous, but not everyone escapes unscathed. One recent victim escaped from hospital and threw himself from a nearby bridge, smashing his ribcage on the cobbled street below.

150 years since Gogol’s death, mysticism still has the power to exert its influence on whoever falls under its spell.

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