On the evening of April 15th, 2019 the world looked on helplessly as one of the planet’s most historically significant buildings went up in flames. There was an audible gasp from the crowd as the spire of Notre Dame collapsed into the street below. Like every other day of the year, 30,000 people had come to see this globally recognized symbol of France and Christianity, but no one knew the fate that was about to occur.
Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured. Much of the building survived, as did many of the relics and treasures kept inside. However, it will take decades to restore the Cathedral to its former glory. As we reflect on the events of April 15th, it is important to pay attention to the fact that an 850-year-old building can be accidentally destroyed within a matter of hours. Nothing in this life lasts forever, so if you have places to go, people to see, and things to do, don’t delay.
The Historical Value of Notre DameWhen construction began in 1160, the architects of Notre Dame couldn’t have foreseen the historical significance this building would accrue. The site it is built upon has been sacred since the Roman times when a temple to Jupiter was constructed there. As Christianity rose to prominence, in about the 4th Century, a basilica dedicated to Saint Stephen took the place of the Roman temple. Residents of Paris regarded this as a spiritual and holy location where they could connect with God.
Another three churches were built on the same site, until Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, decided to be a bit more ambitious. Construction of a large, gothic style Cathedral began, with work finishing precisely 100 years later in 1260. They named it Notre Dame. Rioting destroyed many statues in 1548, but in 1699 King Louis XIV carried out extensive renovations. Paintings of the Magi and Virgin Mary were commissioned, which are now kept safely in the Louvre.
Notre Dame, unlike its predecessors, was never entirely destroyed, but it was repurposed several times. In 1793, it was dedicated to the Cult of Reason, a state-sponsored atheistic religion. This has made the church popular today, even with non-religious folk. During this time, many of the statues of kings were beheaded, and the Virgin Mary was replaced with the Goddess Liberty.
In 1801, Napoleon gave the Cathedral back to the Christians, returning it to a place of holy worship. The ruler had his wedding in Notre Dame, raising its profile significantly. However, the building continued to be violently attacked by religious critics, and it took the release of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame for the government to pay attention to the Cathedral again. A 25-year restoration took place, with an extension made to the spire, creating the significant and looming symbol of Paris which was tragically destroyed in the fire of April 2019. This was when the Cathedral took on the aesthetic that millions of tourists flock to see each year.
Within the walls of Notre Dame are unique and significant treasures. The bells, weighing more than 23 tonnes, date from 1685. There are also fragments of what is believed by Christians to be the cross, nails, and crown of thorns that were used in Jesus’ crucifixion. The building is also home to one of the world’s most famous and beautiful organs, first constructed in 1401. While most of these sacred objects have been saved, it is unclear whether others will ever be restored appropriately.
Notre Dame - A Cultural Icon
Most travelers have heard of Notre Dame, but you may not fully understand its place in the heart of the French nation. While the Eiffel Tower is the most recognizable symbol of Paris, there is something special about the Cathedral. Translated into English as Our Lady, there is a personification of the Notre Dame that is uncommon when it comes to buildings. Referred to by locals as she, Notre Dame is not just a symbol of Christianity, but of resilience during turbulent times. It is known as point zero, the very center of Paris from which all distances are measured. It is the communal meeting place when Paris is mourning a tragedy. If she were obliterated, there would be nothing but a void at which to grieve her passing.
Once you understand the history of Notre Dame, its significance becomes all the more evident. This building has experienced many lifetimes of joy and tragedy, surviving war and watching the fall of the monarchy and the rise of democracy. France is the birthplace of the Enlightenment, the home of one of history’s most important revolutions. It is where reason and science took over from superstition and irrationality. This is the land that helped to defeat the Nazis in the most difficult of circumstances and was at the forefront of creating a peaceful and united Europe.
All of these incredible achievements of human history are represented in Notre Dame. They live on as long as the building continues to exist as a symbol at the center of Paris.
A Lesson in Impermanence
As the flames raged on through the night and the black smoke hovered like a symbol of death over the Parisian streets, the fate of Notre Dame was uncertain. There were fears that the whole building would be destroyed, reduced to a pile of ash in the road. For residents of Paris, it was heartbreaking to watch. However, it was also difficult for foreigners, observing the events unfold through their television, phone or laptop screens.
As the fire was live streamed on Facebook and YouTube, the comments rolled in, expressing not just hurt, but regret. Sentiments such as “I’ve always wanted to visit that Cathedral, but now I’ve missed my chance” or “I was just in Paris! Why didn’t I find time to explore Notre Dame?!” were not uncommon.
It is natural to think that all those things you wish to see as a traveler will always be there. Notre Dame has been around for over 850 years so you would expect it to still be there in the summer of 2019. This fire shattered those illusions of permanence and helped people to realize how everything is at risk of being lost. Attention has turned to other famous buildings, such as the British Parliament and the Berliner Dom. These are also old buildings, which could be lost in an instant. Not only can a fire breakout accidentally, but the threat of terrorism - as seen in the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka - puts everything into doubt.
It isn’t just manmade objects that you need to worry about either. The last remaining male northern white rhino has recently died, leaving only two females in existence, while 93% of the Great Barrier Reef has been destroyed by climate change. Glaciers are melting, and forests are being depleted. Your opportunities to see the greatest wonders of the world are becoming increasingly limited.
Of course, humans are working hard to protect and conserve as much natural and manmade beauty as they can, but the truth is, nothing is permanent. If you have something that you are dying to see, whether it is Machu Picchu or the Great Pyramids of Giza, then book your trip sooner rather than later. Ancient wonders can take centuries to build and then disappear overnight. Rather than putting things off and prioritizing the mundane over the exceptional, reflect on the nature of impermanence. Just as your time on this planet is limited, so too is the lifespan of every great experience you could have.
Nothing lasts forever. Don’t delay your dreams.
Written by Thom Brown