As 850 years of world heritage burned in Paris, with the dreadful scenes the heart of France Notre Dame cathedral set ablaze, the morning after will show a shell of one of France’s most visited sites and one of the most emblematic examples of patrimoine mondial, or world heritage. While there is no good time for the devastation of such an iconic structure of Christendom and human history, that the roof of Notre Dame was destroyed and its spire collapsed at the onset of Holy Week and the run up to Easter, one of the most sacrosanct times for the Christian faith, makes this loss all the more painful. Hopefully, as France contends with the long reconstruction and recovery process, the damage to Notre Dame, whose bells will toll again, will mark a point of national solidarity for a deeply divided French society, which has been roiled by months of civil unrest at the hands of the gilets jaunes.
When the embers burn out, many questions and inquiries must follow as to what sparked this tragedy. While it is too early to tell, Notre Dame was under renovation with scaffolding covering a large portion of the wooden roof that is now burned asunder. Referred to as “the forest” for the 52 acres of trees used in its construction, Notre Dame’s roof and spire, as well as its already imperiled structural integrity will be the focus of reconstruction efforts. Inside the building, countless treasures and religious reliquaries have been spared through the tireless efforts of Parisian firefighters. Meanwhile, the hopes and prayers of 13 million people, believers and non-believers, who set foot in Notre Dame’s hallowed halls or gazed upon its unique exterior each year have been answered as the structure did not collapse in the blaze.
While the wooden roof is all but lost, Notre Dame’s façade, flying buttresses, and unique rose windows have been spared, as well as the cathedral’s twin bell towers, which are a hallmark of this famous structure. Heeding President Macron’s calls for French solidarity and common cause in Notre Dame’s reconstruction, the world has answered. Beginning with the French business elite François-Henri Pinault, Bernard Arnault and his family, along with the Bettencourt family and the French oil giant Total, have pledged a combined $677 million overnight. More funds will surely pour in and will be needed to fully restore Notre Dame’s luster as a UNESCO World Heritage site and as a symbol of French resilience and global faith.
Sadly, Notre Dame is not the first example of world history set ablaze in recent years. In 2018, the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro Brazil was all but a total loss, as the structure caught fire claiming millions of historical items inside. As the recovery efforts ensued, workers were able to recover around 2,000 artifacts from the ashes of the 200-year-old museum. The cases of Notre Dame and the National Museum in Brazil raise questions about our ability to preserve history while retaining antiquity in its current form, without improving firefighting and other protective measures. In Notre Dame’s case, the 850-year-old structure withstood the onslaught of revolutions, fires, 2 world wars, including Hitler’s wrath. And yet, consumed by a fire, whose cause whether deliberate through arson or accidental through the errant ways of renovation crews, all the modernity of the 21st century struggled to contain. Even still, the bravery and effectiveness of France’s fire crews should be praised, as such a devastating blaze caused one injury, while firefighters averted a worst-case scenario.
The tragedy at Notre Dame should spur a review of safety and emergency measures for such vital world heritage sites. From the rising waters of the river Seine in 2018, which imperiled lower levels of the Louvre, to the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria or the destruction of the statues of Buddha carved into a mountain side in Bamyan valley in Afghanistan, to the looting of the Baghdad Museum, complex forces are arrayed against world history and humanity should push back. These tragedies are unifying as powerful symbols of human ingenuity, belief and collective capacity, which must rise again from the ashes or be restored and protected for future generations. Already the pledges to rebuild Notre Dame are being supported by private philanthropy and the appeals to rebuild the heart of Paris will be answered by the world.
With such an incalculable value at risk, preservation, risk management and mitigation efforts for these sites should be redoubled. A valiant fire battalion of more than 400 fought Notre Dame’s blaze for hours, forming a human chain to retrieve the priceless treasures inside the cathedral, despite the real risk that the roof would collapse on top of them. In all, it appears the major artifacts and treasures inside Notre Dame have been saved, as have the iconic rose windows made of century’s old stained glass. Now the more delicate tasks of conducting a detailed investigation and forensic analysis as to the cause of this tragedy, which will focus on the contractors assigned to lead renovation efforts on the roof, as well as the painstaking review of Notre Dame’s structural integrity must follow. Long a symbol of France’s resolve and faith for 850 years, the common cause of Notre Dame’s reconstruction is much more than the restoration of a building, it marks a point of revival for what it means to be French and how the world comes together to restore and protect world heritage. Today, nous sommes tous Français.