Damascus Gate

Damascus Gate

by Robert Stone
Damascus Gate

Damascus Gate

by Robert Stone



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With soaring vision and profound intelligence, Robert Stone has written a harrowing, breathtaking novel about our desperate search, at any price, for the consolation of redemption—and about the people who are all too willing to provide it. A violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip, a mind-altering pilgrimage, a race through riot-filled Jerusalem streets, a cat-and-mouse game in an underground maze, a desperate attempt to prevent a bomb from detonating beneath the Temple Mount—Damascus Gate is an exhilarating journey through the moral and religious ambiguities that haunt the holiest of cities and its seekers, cynics, hustlers, and madmen. Set in Jerusalem, where violence, ecstasy, heresy, and salvation are all to be found, Damascus Gate is simultaneously the story of a man's search for truthor some version of itand the story of a city where sanity is casually traded for faith.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547719320
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 08/16/2013
Format: eBook
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 738,827
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

About The Author

ROBERT STONE (1937–2015) was the acclaimed author of eight novels and two story collections, including Dog Soldiers, winner of the National Book Award, and Bear and His Daughter, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His memoir, Prime Green, was published in 2007.

Read an Excerpt


Jerusalem, 1992

That morning Lucas was awakened by bells, sounding across the Shoulder of Hinnom from the Church of the Dormition. At first light there had been a muezzin's call in Silwan, insisting that prayer was better than sleep. The city was well supplied with divine services.

He climbed out of bed and went into the kitchen to brew Turkish coffee. As he stood at the window drinking it, the first train of the day rattled past, bound over the hills for Tel Aviv. It was a slow, decorous colonial train, five cars of nearly empty coaches with dusty windows. Its diminishing rhythms made him aware of his own solitude.

When the train was gone, he saw the old man who lived in one of the Ottoman houses beside the tracks watering a crop of kale in the early morning shade. The kale was deep green and fleshy against the limestone rubble from which it somehow grew. The old man wore a black peaked cap. He had high cheekbones and a ruddy face like a Slavic peasant's. The sight of him made Lucas imagine vast summer fields along which trains ran, long lines of gray boxcars against a far horizon. Once Lucas dreamed of him.

He had grapefruit and toast for breakfast and read the morning's Jerusalem Post. A border policeman had been stabbed in the Nuseirat camp in the Gaza Strip but was expected to recover. Three Palestinians had been shot to death by Shin Bet hit squads, one in Rafah, two in Gaza City. Haredim in Jerusalem had demonstrated against the Hebrew University's archeological dig near the Dung Gate; ancient Jewish burial sites were being uncovered. Jesse Jackson was threatening to organize a boycott against major league baseball. In India, Hindus and Muslims were fighting over a shrine that probably predated both of their religions. And, in a story from Yugoslavia, he saw again the phrase "ethnic cleansing." He had come across the evocative expression once or twice during the winter.

There was also a full-page story on the number of foreign pilgrims visiting the country for Passover and Western Holy Week. Lucas was surprised to find himself overtaken by the holidays.

He dressed and took a second cup of coffee out on his tiny balcony. The day was innocently glorious; spring sunlight scented the pines and sparkled on the stone walls of Emek Refaim. For weeks he had been postponing work on an article about the Sinai he had contracted to write for Condé Nast. The deadline had passed the previous Friday, and before long they would be phoning him for it. Still, the fine weather inclined him to truancy. When at last he went to his desk, his open appointment book confirmed the date: Easter Sunday in the Latin church and also the sixteenth of Nisan. Passover had arrived the day before. On a sudden impulse Lucas decided to go over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Bethlehem Road was nearly free of traffic. In spite of its elderly population, Lucas's neighborhood in the German Colony was the most secular in the city and its atmosphere was never one of piety. Old couples strolled in the spring sunshine. The day before, he had seen a few young families loading their Volvos for camping trips in the desert or the Galilee. But walking up the nearly deserted avenue, past the terraces of the Cinematheque, under the ramparts of the Church of Scotland Hospice adorned with its bonny blue flag, he could feel the gravity of the ancient city across the canyon. A hundred tour buses were parked in the streets under the Old City walls. At the distant Jaffa Gate, he could see the swaying forms of mounted policemen herding a pressing crowd of bright pilgrims. At the other end of the fortress, a line of devotees toiled single file up the slope to the Zion Gate.

He walked down into the shadow of the valley, over the bridge by the Sultan's Pool and past the Koranic verse carved in the shell of the Ottoman fountain. "All that is created comes of water," it read. Then, humbled by the looming walls, he trudged up the ascent to Zion.

On the path to Zion Gate, he walked mainly among Orthodox Jewish men in black, bound for the Western Wall. Some of the Jews tried to converse with each other as they climbed, scrambling along the shoulder to keep pace. Besides the haredim, there were a few German Catholics on the path because the Dormition Abbey above them was a German church. These pilgrims were of the era before Germans had become once again thin and handsome; many were florid and overweight, too bulkily dressed and perspiring freely. Yet they seemed happy. Most of the men looked plain and decent; they wore sodality pins and carried missals. Some of the women had sweet angelic faces. If they were sixty, Lucas calculated ... born 1932, thirteen at the end of the war. He had picked up the habit of calculating Germans' ages from the Israelis.

It was a cheerful climb, with a smell of sage and jasmine on the wind and desiccated wildflowers underfoot and voices in Hebrew, Yiddish, German. The great walls reduced everyone, confounding all kingdoms. As he neared the ridge, the bells began again.

Following the file toward the gate, he thought of a prophecy, in a Midrash someone had related to him. At the End of Days, multitudes would try to cross the Valley of Hinnom to the holy city. Christians, traversing a bridge of stone, would fall to perdition. Muslims, on a wooden bridge, would follow them. Then the Jews would cross, glorified, on a bridge of gossamer. What about me, Lucas wondered, not for the first time.

The top of the trail was paved and provided for by the Jews of Canada. At its end, the mild children of wicked Edom and the pious men of Israel parted in sweet mutual oblivion, the Germans to their hugely unfortunate yellow abbey, the Jews toward the Western Wall. Lucas went his own way, north on Armenian Patriarchate Road. There he encountered more haredim headed for the Wall, putting the confusions of Easter behind them. In front of St. James's Cathedral, teenage Armenian acolytes were dressing their ranks for a Sunday procession.

On this conjunction of sacred seasons, the Jews and the Armenians in the crowded street pretended each other's invisibility without colliding. A half-caste apologizing his way through the crush, Lucas was visited by a notion: that only he could see both sects. That where only the unseen mattered, he was reduced to mere utility, to petty observations and staying out of the way.

Passing under an arch where tilesmiths kept shop, he stopped to examine the posters on the wall beside it. They were all in Armenian and many showed the picture of the new president of the Armenian republic. There were also pictures of armed guerrillas with rifles and bandoliers and black-bordered photographs of young martyrs, slain far away in the Azerbaijani war. It was the season of martyrdom in a banner year for martyrs.

In the main street of the Christian Quarter, a promiscuous babble of pilgrims hurried down the sloping cobbled pavement. One group of Japanese followed a sandaled Japanese friar who held a green pennant aloft. There was a party of Central American Indians of uniform size and shape who stared with blissful incomprehension into the unconvincing smiles of merchants offering knickknacks. There were Sicilian villagers and Boston Irish, Filipinos, more Germans, Breton women in native dress, Spaniards, Brazilians, Quebecois.

Palestinian hustlers hissed suggestively, offering guidance. Lucas noticed that the Caravan Bar, his favorite beer joint in the Old City, was shuttered. He had heard something about threats. Cutting through the New Bazaar, he became aware of another closing. Above one of the embroidery shops there had been a loft that once sold not only brass pipes and nargilehs but excellent hashish to smoke in them. Now both shop and loft were derelict. Since the intifada, Lucas had taken to buying his hashish where the thin, handsome German hippies bought theirs, at a kiosk near the Arab bus terminal on Saladin Street. The police never seemed to interfere, Lucas had noticed, probably because the seller was one of their informers.

In the courtyard before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he was reunited with the mass of pilgrims. Green-bereted troopers of the Border Police were stationed at every approach to the church and on the adjoining rooftops. Under their guns, the Japanese friar was addressing his flock above the noise of the throng.

The Japanese groups were composed largely of middle-aged women who wore dark jumpers and khaki rain hats of the sort once favored by kibbutzniks. The priest would be telling them, Lucas imagined, the story of Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena — how she had discovered the Holy Sepulchre and the very Rood itself. The Japanese ladies were a motherly lot, and Lucas thought they appeared to like the story. Why not, since it had a pious mother, a dutiful son and a miracle? Then, all at once, he found himself calculating ages again. It had occurred to him that the Franciscan and his party might have come from Nagasaki. Nagasaki had been the most Christian of Japan's cities. All through the war, the Japanese had thought the Americans spared it air raids for that reason.

In the sooty, incensed hollows of the church, he made his way through the rotunda to the undistinguished Catholic chapel in the far corner, moving just ahead of the Japanese. A glum Italian monk stood at the door, snubbing pilgrims who tried to smile at him.

Inside the chapel, some Americans with guitars were plinking unhappily away, accompanying their own sad sing-along of a few socially responsible, with-it numbers from the sacred liturgy of whatever cow college town they called home. Like many visitors, they had been unnerved by the inimitable creepiness of the Holy Sepulchre, a grimly gaudy, theopathical Turkish bathhouse where their childhood saints glared like demented spooks from every moldering wall. Lucas, once born, once baptized, put his hand in the holy water and crossed himself.

"Dark is life, is death," he thought. It was all that came to mind. The text was from Mahler's Song of the Earth but he supposed it might be considered a sort of prayer.

"My heart is still and awaits its hour."

He still owned an old record, now nearly unplayable, of his mother singing it in German. In any case, he offered it up to whatever was out there, for whatever purpose. Then he made his way through the press of Japanese and across the gloomy spaces of the Anastasis and up the worn stairs to the Chapel of St. James to hear the Armenian liturgy. Theirs was his favorite.

After a while the Armenians arrived in procession, pausing near the entrance of the church so that their patriarch could kiss the Stone of Unction. Then, preceded by youths carrying candles and monks in pointed hoods, the Armenians of the city trooped up to the chapel and the service began. Lucas, as was his custom, stood off to one side.

For a time, he secretly watched the lustrous-eyed worshipers absorbed in their devotions. The night was always dark in their prayers and everybody far from home. Then — because it was Easter for someone, because the Armenian liturgy was sublime, because it couldn't hurt — he lowered his head in the Jesus Prayer. It was another thing he had picked up around, the mantra of the Oriental Christians, a little like repeating Nam myoho renge kyo but with a measure of Berdyayevian soul.

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."

Properly prayed, repeated, the gaze fixed upon the heart, the breathing controlled — it was supposed to be good for you.

At the very moment of uttering this vain hesychastic repetition, while reflecting on the fond, silly regard for religion he had come to Jerusalem to cure himself of, he was startled from his mooning by a dreadful bellow from the rotunda. Then a rasping scream, echoing dismally through the blasted caverns, freezing the pilgrims in mid-bliss. Even the Armenians missed a beat, and a few of the children moved to the edge of the loft to see what the matter was. Lucas followed, looking down over the railing.


Below, in the candle-lit spaces of the Anastasis, A majnoon, a madman, was running wild. Potbellied, bespectacled, arms spread wide, hands dangling, the majnoon appeared to be a Western visitor. Around the Chapel of the Tomb he ran, in fluttery, short-legged, birdlike steps. Worshipers fled him. Under the Emperor's Arch and along the wall of the Greek Catholicon, the man ran screaming, setting the hanging sacristy lamps to swing and clatter on their chains. He seemed to be flapping in an attempt at flight, as though he might take wing and sail up to the vault like a church owl. His face was red and round. His eyes bulged sickly blue. A few young Greek Orthodox acolytes in black cassocks were chasing him.

With formidable agility, the madman succeeded in doubling back on his pursuers toward the Chapel of the Tomb. A candle stand full of burning tapers overturned and people fought their way back from the flames. Around and around the tomb he ran, leading the Greeks in a comic rondelay. Then he peeled off and headed for the Chapel of St. Mary. The gathered Catholics gasped and screamed. The friar at the chapel door moved to close it.

Then the majnoon began to shout at length in German. Something about blasphemy, Lucas thought. Something about heathen and thieves. Then he began to swear mechanically. "Fick ... Gott in Himmel ... Scheiss ... Jesusmaria." Echoes ricocheted crazily through the interconnected vaults that made up the church. When the Greeks caught him, he switched to English.

"A den of thieves," the deranged German shrieked. "Fornication," he shouted at a prim young Catholic woman in a white mantilla. "Strangulation. Blood."

Some of the Greek Orthodox posse stomped out the flaming tapers while the rest hauled their prisoner toward the door and the shafts of spring sunlight. A party of Israeli policemen were waiting there to receive him, looking as though they had seen it all before. Around Lucas, the Armenians prayed harder.

The pilgrims pouring out into the forecourt after the service were abuzz with the untoward incident. The soldiers and border policemen lining the route back toward the Jaffa Gate looked more wary and purposeful than usual. Braced for something more serious, they were hoping to herd the mass of tourists out of the Old City. At the same time, they were under orders to let the Christian pilgrims wander at will, as a demonstration of normalcy and order.

He soon drifted with the crowd into the vaulted souks between the Damascus Gate and the Haram al-Sharif. Lucas had come to move confidently through the Old City, although he sometimes questioned his own confidence. He believed his appearance to be more or less foreign, which, in the Muslim Quarter, was a point in his favor. At a kiosk in the Khan al-Sultan souk, he bought an English-language copy of the PLO newspaper Al-Jihar. Displayed in hand, it might be a precaution against attack as well as a way of keeping up with the situation.

The Damascus Gate, with its Ottoman towers and passages and barbarous Crusader revetments, was his favorite place in the city. He took a simple tourist's pleasure in the crowds and the blaring taped Arab music, in the rush provided by the open sacks of spices that were piled in wheelbarrows beside the vendors' stalls. To the Palestinians it was the Bab al-Amud, the Gate of the Column, but Lucas rejoiced in the common English name, the suggestion of a route toward mystery, interior light, sudden transformation. He sat for a while over a Sprite, taking in the sensations of the gate, and then set out quixotically in search of something stronger.

Both his regular spot in Christian Quarter Road and the rooftop garden in the souk had inexplicably closed. The one place he found open was a disreputable tourist trap on the edge of the Christian Quarter that catered to Wandervogel and other riffraff from the cheap hostels of East Jerusalem. Like many of the bars on the Palestinian side, it displayed pictures of Christian saints lest the Hamas enforcers mistake the management for bad Muslims.

Three young Scandinavian women with shorn hair were drinking mineral water near the street end of the place. He was surprised to find, tending bar in the back, a middle-aged Palestinian named Charles Habib, who had been his host at the Caravan. He ordered a cold


Excerpted from "Damascus Gate"
by .
Copyright © 1998 Robert Stone.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Frank Conroy

An astonishing and thrilling novel. Varieties of Religious Experience for the millennium. By turns scary, funny, and deeply moving. Prose at such a high pitch it sometimes seems hallucinatory. Stone is a genius.

Ward Just

Robert Stone is an explorer who takes his readers to the fractured edges of the known world. Damascus Gate is a triumph, Stone at the height of his powers.

Joy Williams

Erudite eschatological noir. A marvelous novel. Never has the "Holy Land" appeared so diabolical, beckoning and strange.

From the Publisher

"But while the religious quests of Stone's characters help drive his story, the novel is ultimately concerned less with metaphysics and cosmic order than with the earthly realm of politics and the human craving for certainty. The characters in Damascus Gate may be "God- struck," they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions." — The New York Times

"Heavy as a marble tablet, it delivers revelations about character and culture in the way that only a dense, textured novel can.... Precise and passionate, Damascus Gate is a stunning achievement." — Philadelphia Inquirer

"Damascus Gate asks enormous questions about cosmic truth—and its effect on those who think they own it—with intensity, intellectual rigor and abiding morality." — San Francisco Chronicle

"The writing, often dense with metaphor and landscape, is powerful, and the result is a pulsing, profound novel...." — Entertainment Weekly

Annie Dillard

His book of books, his millennial novel of the millenial place...Damascus Gate is a narrative of good and evil written in letters of fire.

John Banville

Robert Stone is that rare thing, a novelist who goes straight to the heart of the modern inferno. In Damascus Gate he has journeyed to one of the inner circles and come back to bear witness. A frightening, grim, invigorating work.

Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss whether and how this book changed your feelings about the situation in the Middle East. Do you believe you understand the many sides of the issues better after reading Damascus Gate? How did your own knowledge of this complex place affect your perception of the book? Do you wish you had known more about the religious groups depicted in this book before reading it? 2. How do you feel about Lucas's alternately concealing and revealing his Jewish heritage, depending on the situation he finds himself in? Is he being duplicitous or savvy? Is this strategy any different from Sonia's decision to choose her clothing based on which neighborhood she will be in? How? 3. Is De Kuff a visionary prophet or merely delusional? Is there a fine line between the two? If his preaching helps people, does it matter if he is crazy? 4. At what point is Lucas's role as a journalist eclipsed by his personal quest? What is Lucas questing for? Has he, in fact, been seeking spiritual fulfillment all along? If so, does he consciously decide that he is ready to begin this search? What, in the end, does he discover and does he find it satisfying? How does his background affect his approach to writing about Jerusalem Syndrome -- and how does writing about Jerusalem Syndrome affect his quest? 5. Damascus Gate has been called "a millennial thriller" (Booklist), and a "millennial novel of the millennial place" (Annie Dillard). But aren't the issues explored in this novel -- who we are, where we are going, what ultimately matters -- questions that have always existed for us in one form or another? What particularly gives this book such strongly millennial overtones? 6. Discuss the nature ofthe thriller as a genre and how it applies to Damascus Gate. How does this book adhere to the conventions of the genre? How does its style and substance differ from more traditional thrillers, like those by Grisham or Turow? 7. Compare the character, motivations, and goals of Raziel and De Kuff. Who is the stronger person and in what way? What does each have to offer the other? Who is really being manipulated and who is really pulling the strings? 8. What is the significance of the title Damascus Gate? What is the Damascus Gate and how does it figure in the novel? Given the biblical story of what happens to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, what metaphorical suggestion might the title have? How does the literal representation of the Gate tie in with its spiritual implications? 9. Ericksen claims that "[Satan's] power has never been greater than it is today" (page 90). What does he mean by this statement? How might it be influenced by the greater availability of information and technology in our world? Is it too easy for us to think we have all the answers? Is it too easy for God to be lost in such a world? 10. Compare Sonia and Linda. How are they different from each other, but how are they also similar? Do they have more in common with each other than they realize? Can they both be described as followers? If so, what is different about the way each one "follows" her leader? Who is more dangerous to herself and/or to others? 11. The House of Galilean is ultimately exposed as a scam. Does this revelation make the sincere devotion of its followers any less legitimate? How much difference is there between the House of Galilean and other mainstream organizations that promote a religious doctrine while also making money? Where do we draw the line? 12. Nuala gets Sonia entangled in transporting both drugs and weapons, even though Sonia's Sufism prohibits any involvement with illegal substances or violence. Do Nuala's passionate beliefs excuse her for putting her friends in danger and for disregarding Sonia's strongest convictions? To what extent is Sonia responsible for her actions? Should one be willing to do anything -- even break the law -- in the name of religion or of personal belief? How might those situations differ? Do strong religious beliefs ever justify violence or deception? 13. What is it about Nuala that Lucas finds so compelling? What drives her to put her life on the line? In the end, is she a martyr who dies for her cause? Or does she simply get what is coming to her? What does Nuala ultimately accomplish? 14. Most of the main characters in Damascus Gate are foreign to Israel. What is the significance of being a "foreigner" in Jerusalem? Do you think the author is suggesting that most people in Israel are foreigners of one kind or another? Discuss how the story might be different if it were told from a native's point of view, and how that point of view would be affected by the quarter in which the native lived. 15. How does Berger's death affect Sonia's beliefs? Her behavior? Her need for someone or something to follow? Who is Berger's replacement in Sonia's life? Lucas? De Kuff? No one? Has she become permanently unmoored? What do you think will happen to her after the novel's conclusion? 16. Despite their differences and conflicting belief systems, some of the characters in this book become close friends and confidants. How is this possible? Are these true friendships or fleeting alliances of convenience? How do their personal differences affect their relationships? How do they influence on one another's beliefs? Do any of them truly change their beliefs during the course of the novel? How and why does this happen? 17. Discuss the morality of characters like Zimmer and Fotheringill. Are they villains willing to do anything or side with anyone simply for financial gain? Or does their admitting their true motivations make them honest, if also offensive? What are their roles in the plot to bomb the Temple Mount? What do these roles show us about their characters? Did you think better or worse of them after discovering their true intent? 18. Discuss the fallout of the bomb plot. How did you react to the ending? Were you surprised? How did it affect your perception of the characters? Discuss how knowing the outcome would have affected your reading of the novel. 19. Whether or not Lucas has discovered what he was looking for, he has come to the end of a journey. Where do you think he will go from here? How do you think his experiences in Jerusalem will affect him in the future? What might he be seeking now, that he was not seeking before?

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