Written by: Meredith Antell
Paris residents watched as the Notre Dame cathedral, the symbol of beauty and history of Paris, was damaged by a dramatic fire last Monday evening. Completed in the 13th century, the cathedral has served as a landmark for Paris, attracting around 13 million people each year — nearly double the visitors of the Eiffel Tower. The fire hit the disheartened city following weeks of violent protests.
For five hours nearly 500 firefighters battled the flames. By 11 p.m., two towers remained but two-thirds of the roof had been destroyed. Fortunately no one was killed, although one firefighter was seriously injured. Although France experienced a number of attacks on Catholic churches, officials believe the fire at Notre Dame was accidental. Parisians have raised their voices in prayer while the Vatican laments the devastation to a “symbol of Christianity” for France and the rest of the world. As the spire fell, crowds gasped and Pierre-Eric Trimovillas claimed that Paris had been “beheaded.”
Although most people immediately refer back to Victor Hugo’s classic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, at the mention of the cathedral, it is today considered both a feat of architecture and a major religious and cultural symbol of France. The cathedral’s towers, spire, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows housed decades of French history. It is where French kings and queens were married, Napoleon was crowned in 1804, and was the venue for the thanksgiving ceremony that took place after the Liberation of Paris in 1944. According to President Emmanuel Macron, “This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives. It is the cathedral of all the French.” Thibaud Binétruy, a resident of Paris, adds, “Paris without Notre Dame, madness.”
Donna Calhoun, a professor of mathematics currently on sabbatical at the Sorbonne compared the incident to the 9/11 attacks in New York. She pointed out that “the expressions of solidarity, too, were similar to the ones voiced in September 2001, even if this time there were no deaths and apparently no malicious intent.”
Until Monday night, the cathedral had managed to withstand the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, two world wars, and Adolf Hitler’s demolition plans in the 1940s. Now, six days before Easter Sunday, it is deeply scarred by an accidental fire. Fortunately, the cathedral’s iconic rose windows and Great Organ survived in addition to two of Notre Dame’s most precious relics: a tunic worn by Saint Louis (a 13th-century French king) and the crown of thorns supposedly worn by Jesus himself.
In the aftermath of the heartbreaking event President Emmanuel Macron made a vow to his nation: “I tell you solemnly tonight: We will rebuild this cathedral.” With over $700 million in donations already pledged to the construction project, this promise has favorable odds. As expressed by French author Bernard-Henri Levy, though, “How can you rebuild eight or nine centuries of history? How can you rebuild the tears, the whispers and the memories of a whole country and of the whole civilization?”