In the center of Paris on the evening of April 15, just as the last round of tourists were making their way through the cathedral, the doors to the 856-year-old Notre-Dame were suddenly shut. An efficient and successful evacuation was made after it was discovered that a fire was ravaging the roof of the cathedral, which was in the process of a heavy restoration. The fire blazed well into the night, battering one of the greatest icons of the Parisian skyline. At approximately 8 p.m. Central European Time, the famous wooden spire, the tallest point of the cathedral, collapsed into the inferno raging below. Parisians and tourists alike gaped and wept as they watched their beloved Notre-Dame fall victim to the vicious blaze. Some sang in unison, some sobbed and others watched in silence out of utter disbelief. How could a colossal monument, which has survived the French Revolution, two world wars and a constant flux of around one million tourists each year, be destroyed so suddenly and so quickly by fire?
No lives were lost, and no one was injured. I hear what some of you are saying: “It’s just a building; it’s not a tragedy. People die every day at the hands of terrorists and armies. That is a tragedy.” No, the destruction of one building is not the same as the loss of human life; however, I would respond to you by advising that it is neither your nor my place to decide what is and what is not a tragedy for others. Perhaps you have no meaningful connection to this iconic structure. Perhaps it represents not much more than any other beautiful old building. But for so many living in Paris and all over the world, this monument is deeply tied into their memories, their social and communal identity, their religion or their culture.
Notre-Dame has stood as an icon in the literal center of Paris for nearly a millennium. To cast aside its significance without any consideration or second thought is to disrespect those who see it as more than just an old building.
Esmé Govan, a friend of mine living in Paris, stood and watched along with thousands of Parisians and visitors as the cathedral burned. “Everyone here is crying,” she said of the crowds packing the banks of the Seine to watch their treasured monument burn. Even for someone who had lived in Paris for less than a year, Notre-Dame was an integral part of her experience in Paris; she passed it every morning on her way to the metro. When I told her how sorry I was, she responded, “I still feel like I’m going to wake up and it will be there.”
To the average Parisian, Notre-Dame was more than just another pretty church attracting tourists. Notre-Dame was a cultural identifier of the beauty and romance of Parisian culture, even for Parisians with no religious affiliation. In a city that has historically seen much political and cultural upheaval—from the French Revolution to the recent and ongoing yellow-jacket riots—Notre-Dame has continuously stood as a testament to the city’s cultural heritage. Political scientist Claude Mbowou said, “[Notre-Dame is] much more than a cathedral… I’m a Muslim but I’m still very moved when I see this place… It represents something deep, it transcends us. It’s a loss, not only for France but for the entire world. It’s as if the pyramids in Egypt were destroyed” (New York Times, “What the Notre-Dame Fire Reveals About the Soul of France,” 04.16.19).
When one thinks of Paris, often the first image they conjure is that of the Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame. The Eiffel Tower, which many see as the iconic symbol of Paris, has served that role for just over a century; Notre-Dame has done so for eight. It represents Paris’ skyline across the globe. Notre-Dame has embodied the romance and the heritage of this beautiful city. For this reason, the cathedral has served as a source of pride for Parisians, a sight that lifts their spirits whenever they behold it. To have such a monument to France’s history be nearly destroyed just adds salt to the wounds caused by the country’s current political and social turmoil.
Don’t get me wrong, it is better that Notre-Dame burn than lives be lost. This was different from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. These situations are not the same. I do not think anyone would say they are. But that does not mean that the Notre-Dame fire was not a tragedy. Notre-Dame represents more than just an old church. It is a work of art, a culmination of nearly 200 years of construction by some of the most skilled craftsman and architects of the Gothic Period. Its rose windows are works of art in and of themselves. Its stonework and flying buttresses serve as prime embodiments of the gothic style. Approximately 1,300 trees, each large enough to serve as individual beams, comprised the wood portion of the attic. Trees, that size in that abundance, are nearly impossible to find today (Notre-Dame de Paris, “the frame”). Hundreds of years worth of work were lost in a fire overnight.
For the admiring architect, Notre-Dame is a feat of ingenuity and craftsmanship that cannot be overstated. For the tourist, it is their enduring memory of their visit to Paris. For the Catholic, it is the holy space of their worship, an encapsulation of their beliefs and values, a reassurance of their faith. And for every Parisian, the landmark is an embodiment of their city’s identity, a hub for their culture and collective memories. For all these people, Notre-Dame is more than a building and their appreciation for it is more than just a physical fixation. Instead, it becomes a fixation on the meaning and significance it bears to each of them.
I’m not telling you that you need to feel sad about the destruction of Notre-Dame or even that you should care about it at all. I am telling you to respect the fact that—for their own reasons—some people do. Their grief is in no way invalidated simply because there are worse things that could happen than an old building burning. Let those who need to mourn, mourn, for none of us get to decide what is deserving of someone else’s tears.