It came like a vicious punch to the heart – the horrific sight of Notre Dame de Paris engulfed in angry, red-orange sheets of flame.
Watching Notre Dame Cathedral burning gave me the same sick feeling that I, and most others, experienced on September 11, 2001 when we watched United Airlines Flight 175 fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
It was like watching a piece of yourself dying.
There are a few places on Earth where you can literally feel the sweep of history wash over you. In the year 1000, Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, was the largest building in the world. Agra’s Taj Mahal is an eternal monument to the power of love. The Acropolis of Athens, the Roman Colosseum and the Great Pyramid of Giza arte powerful reminders us of the generations that came before us.
Our Lady of Paris is one of these. The Mother Cathedral of France, Notre Dame was 856 years old when she was struck by what is being described as the “Fire of the Century.”
That fire, it is now thought may have been caused by an electrical short circuit. And while the blaze left Parisians and most of the world stunned into silence as they watched the great cathedral burn, others may have seen the disaster as heaven-sent.
The sad fact is that Notre Dame was in danger of collapsing even before the fire. For years before structural engineers began swarming over the cathedral in the wake of the April 15th fire, the ravages of pollution and weathered, crumbling stone had already done far more damage than the litany of disasters that this Queen of Cathedrals had already suffered.
In 1548, Notre Dame endured its first attack at the hands of French Huguenot rioters. Worse would come during the French Revolution between 1787 and 1799, when France seemed to lose its collective sanity. Opposed to then Revolution, the Catholic Church had become a target of the mob’s ire. Mistaking 28 statues of Biblical Kings for French kings, the mob beheaded the figures in an orgy of bloodlust, and sacked Notre Dame of many of its treasures.
Following the Revolution, Notre Dame wallowed in neglect.
That changed in 1831, when Victor Hugo’s wildly popular book, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” sparked a renewed interest in the ravaged cathedral. That interest led, in 1844, to a 20-year restoration program launched by King Louis Philippe. The famous gargoyles on the cathedrals balustrade, considered the protectors of Notre Dame, were added during this period. It was also during this time of renewal that the great wooden spire was added to the centrepiece of the cathedrals roof. Atop that spire perched a copper rooster which would soon become a lasting symbol of France, displayed on French postage stamps for decades.
Millions around the world gasped on April 15th at the terrible sight of that famous spire, tormented by flames, as it toppled into the nave of the cathedral through the gaping hole torn by fire in the cathedral’s roof. Nestled inside the rooster were relics of the French Saints Denis and Genevieve, and a thorn from the Holy Crown of Thorns which believers revere as a relic of the crucifixion.
Heavily sandbagged, Notre Dame also survived two world wars, although bullets pockmarked its exterior during street fighting in 1944. But of all the calamities that have struck the massive structure in the very centre of Paris, decades of pollution and centuries of weather that have rotted wood and worn away stone may be the worst vandals. So says Philippe Villeneuve, architect-in-chief of historic monuments for France. Even before the fire, Villeneuve had been calling for funding to shore up the foundations and replace the damaged joints and ruined stone that might have led to an even more disastrous outcome than the fire, which destroyed the roof and gutted the cathedral, leaving shaky walls still standing.
In the aftermath of the fire, the torrent of funds pledged to the rebuilding of Notre Dame provide stark evidence of the love the world feels for this majestic structure. Those funds will ensure that the cathedral survives for centuries more.
Whether it takes five years or fifty to rebuild Notre Dame, a world, which treasures this sacred jewel of antiquity, can look forward to the great bells of Notre Dame ringing out in splendour once again.