Confessions from the Field: From Mark to Matthew

By Alice Riddell • MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology (alumnus)

This is the third instalment of the Confessions from the Field series by Alice Riddell, which presents field notes from fictional ethnographers. Read the previous one here.


From Mark to Matthew

Mark Beardsall

This story borders on the farcical. I think that is why people enjoy hearing it so much. Many of my colleagues are still dumbfounded at the events that unfolded and, quite frankly, so am I. But I assure you that all that is written here is the truth and reality of what I experienced.

I am an architectural and cultural anthropologist and have been for 20 or so years. I specialize in the multi-religious use of space and landscape, predominantly in the Middle East. I myself am religious, although I had no reasons whatsoever to think that would greatly affect my research in Jerusalem. I had been there many times before and even conducted research in neighboring Jericho for over a year. On the flight over, I had no more concerns than is normal when embarking on a long fieldwork project.

I arrived, freshened up and went on a walk through the labyrinthine Old City, saying hello to old friends and admiring the golden warmth projected from the Dome of the Rock. My relatively relaxed disposition lasted but an hour. I started to feel dizzy and was aware of anxiety, creeping over me. I retired to my hotel to rest but instead lay awake all night, murmuring insomniatic psalms. The next day, I crossed the stations and wailed at the wall. Nothing helped.

Jerusalem is not a normal city. It is a place of divine seduction, full of spiritual suggestions; so much so that there is a syndrome named after it to which, it appeared, I had succumbed. In the last 12 years there have been more than 500 reported cases of Jerusalem syndrome, and these are just the cases that required medical treatment. The syndrome disproportionately affects Christian Protestants and peaks around Easter and Christmas.

I was aware of such a condition existing. Amusingly, it was traditionally called “Jerusalem squabble poison.” I can hardly say I felt poisoned. Rather, I felt enlightened, even newly formed, my true identity taking shape and finally revealed! This was who I was.

It turned out that I had Type 1 Jerusalem syndrome, in which the sufferer embodies an important historical and religious character, in my case the Apostle Matthew. Type 1 generally strikes those with previous psychotic disorders. Perhaps it is pertinent to mention my bi-polar diagnosis, perhaps not. I, for one, am rather fed up with the association of religiosity to mental illness. The renowned physiatrist Thomas Szasz touched on the incongruity when he said: ‘If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.’ No doubt the Second Coming will be obscured by cells, sections and psychotics.

As Matthew, while under the sacred spell of the city, I met another enchanted individual. He was King David and daily he would play his lyre and sing while dressed in robes and a crown. He lived in a tent on some of the most coveted land in all of Israel, on the hillside where the Apocalypse is to begin. I later learned that his name was Stuart H. and that he was a refrigerator installer from Brisbane.

I, too, purchased a robe and sandals and started to grow out my beard. I bought perfume bottles daily, as somewhere in the filing cabinets of my secular brain I remembered that Matthew was the patron saint of perfumeries, amongst other things. For some things I can most certainly be grateful. Matthew was a fairly harmless figure. Apparently, one man with the infliction believed that he had leprosy, that he had lost his home and all his money, and that his children were dead. The journey from Jerusalem to Job was un-joyous indeed.

All I did was demand that my former research participants pay me their taxes, for I was the tax collector. At times I would communicate in Greek, of which I had some previous knowledge. I also did lots of writing, as an ethnographer should. But they weren’t field notes; rather they were the formulations of my gospel. I wrote with quill on parchment, both of which were readily available in local tourist shops. In total, I completed three miracles, six parables, and was about to start my literary pièce de résistance, The Last Supper, before I was hurried out of Jerusalem.

On the subject of food, even with my extensive knowledge of Christianity, my brain seemed to get muddled about exactly who I was. So consequently, every evening I would order five loaves of bread and two fish from my hotel kitchen. They indulged my requests for about two weeks, frequently inquiring as to when my 5,000 guests were to arrive. Amusing indeed.

As my delusions became more frequent and more noticeable, I was referred to the resident psychiatrist of Jerusalem, Dr. Moshe Mizrah. We happened to know one another from my past trips to the city. He was stunned to learn that the syndrome had befallen me, of all people. He was not aware of my bi-polar diagnosis, and why should he be, for it had caused no issues with my research prior. “If only you were here two hours earlier Mark,” Dr. Mizrah said, laughing. “We had five Messiahs all in the same ward!” I remember at the time not finding his witticism so funny.

Dr. Mizrah organized my transport out of Jerusalem and ensured I had a chaperone to help me home safely. Two and a half weeks in the city and I was gone, without so much as a jot of research. Typical of Jerusalem syndrome, a few days after returning home, the delusions passed. Mark bid farewell to Matthew. Good riddance and Hallelujah!

Looking back now and writing this tale, I see it can be amusing — an expert on Middle Eastern multi-religious architecture succumbing to Jerusalem syndrome! You couldn’t write it and that’s why I have. But it also presents some interesting anthropological anomalies. For example, what happens when the distance between researcher and the object of research vanishes, when the researcher becomes consumed by and subsumed into the research? What is the answer when critics ask the anthropologist, ‘Who is the research really about?’ I would reply: ‘It certainly can’t be me. As with psychoanalysis, one cannot be the object of one’s own analysis or research. Then again, it can hardly be anything or anyone else, due to the state of my condition in Jerusalem.

I pose these questions because it is hard to come to terms with the fact that I disappeared as an anthropologist. Most heart wrenchingly, I concluded that I shall do no more research, certainly not in the Holy City. Not only would it be unwise to attempt it due to potential bias and competing narratives, but also because I am afraid, nay terrified, to return should it return. I valued above most other things in my life my career and my vocation, but these are now gone from my grasp. In addition, the places most dear to my mind and my soul I can never revisit. It is most upsetting.

But this tragicomedy does have an ending, and a new beginning, although it is hardly worthy of Shakespearian attention, the Holy Grail of playwrights. I have spent the last three years writing a play of my own. It is a modern tragicomedy, about a man who believes he is the descendent of Christ and, with the help of his friend Mario, attempts to track his lineage and lay claim to the Holy bloodline. I already have a publisher, so perhaps I am not quite finished with Jerusalem yet!

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