RIYADH The dingy corridors and gloomy wards of a long-abandoned Saudi Arabian hospital have drawn hundreds of amateur ghost hunters who believe it to be haunted by jinn, the malevolent spirits of the Koran and Arabian mythology.
The macabre fascination with Riyadh's Irqa Hospital, which treated Gulf War combatants in 1991, began with tweeted rumours and escalated to the point where hundreds of youths broke into the grounds, smashing windows and starting fires.
"Teenagers sent text messages calling for an operation against some of the jinn who live in the hospital, and they broke into the hospital and smashed its facilities and burned 60 percent of it," Okaz newspaper reported last week.
The rampage prompted angry press complaints the authorities were allowing the building to fall into disrepair.
Several films have since been posted on YouTube showing grinning young men exploring the building's deserted rooms in search of evidence of spectral activity.
One showed blazing palm trees that had been torched by the ghost hunters.
Jinn fever reached the point where the Health Ministry issued a terse statement on Monday disclaiming responsibility for the decaying building, which it said was privately owned and too decrepit to be revived as a working hospital.
A columnist in the English-language Saudi Gazette daily on Tuesday recommended that authorities form "a committee for the jinn" to help the owners of possessed houses.
"It would be no understatement to say we are sick and tired of evil sorcerers," said the article.
Belief in jinn is enshrined in Muslim cosmology, with numerous mentions of them in the Koran.
Unlike in the Western tradition of ghosts, jinn are not the lost souls of the dead but beings who lead parallel lives to humans, whom they sometimes tempt into sinful ways.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Andrew Roche)