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'Notre-Dame is our history': Why the centuries-old cathedral means so much to France

A massive fire that ripped through Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday left the historic building in the heart of Paris blackened and wounded. But the promise to rebuild came quickly, with smoke still billowing into the city sky.

President says historic structure will be rebuilt after devastating fire

Firefighters in Paris declared success Tuesday morning in an over 12-hour battle to extinguish a fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral after a huge blaze devastated the centuries-old structure. (Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images)

On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind.

No, not a description of the fire which ravaged Notre-Dame in April 2019, but a fictional fire — art foreshadowing life — in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published by Victor Hugo in 1831.

One of Hugo's goals in writing the book was to rekindle interest in the cathedral so it could be restored. He called it a "vast symphony in stone" as "powerful and fecund as the divine creation."

Construction on the "symphonic" building began in 1163, but the cathedral fell into deep disrepair after the French Revolution of 1789. Revolutionary leaders had transformed it into a "Temple of Reason," and much of its religious statuary had been smashed.

Hugo succeeded. The French government agreed to a massive restoration plan under the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The original medieval spire had been removed as unsafe before the revolution. Viollet-le-Duc had a copy made and placed on the roof.

It was that spire which caught fire and crashed down before the cameras of the world in the evening of April 15.

Firefighters in Paris battled for over 12 hours to extinguish an inferno engulfing the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral. 1:52

Hugo's book began the transformation of Notre-Dame into a republican cathedral, the cathedral of the nation.

It was to Notre-Dame that French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle walked in August 1944 to celebrate a solemn mass of thanksgiving for the liberation of Paris after years of Nazi occupation.

It was to Notre-Dame that thousands came for a service of remembrance for the 130 people killed in co-ordinated mass shootings and suicide bombings at busy Paris nightspots in November 2015.

And it has been to Notre-Dame that millions of tourists come every year — 13 million last year — to look and stand and take pictures. It is the biggest tourist attraction in France.

That, too, owes much to Hugo, but also to Disney and its much happier version of The Hunchback (Esmeralda isn't hanged, she finds love, and Quasimodo is saved and cheered).

All of this helps explain the deep emotional reaction of French leaders and people to the fire.

"Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives."

French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild the cathedral, and is asking for international help to do it. By Tuesday, donations were already pouring in. (Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images)

That was the French president, Emmanuel Macron, speaking in front of the cathedral as the fire still burned. He said a national fund would be set up to restore the gravely injured building.

"We will rebuild Notre-Dame because this is what the French expect, because this is what our history deserves, because this is our profound destiny. So I solemnly say tonight: We will rebuild it together."

Heart of the city

Macron seemed visibly moved as he spoke. The sense of personal loss was shared by many.

"I don't have words strong enough to express the pain I feel," wrote the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, on Twitter.

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      The hundreds of people inside for evening mass were ushered out safely. A human chain was formed to try and save priceless relics, including the Crown of Thorns, which Christians believe Christ wore during his crucifixion.

      The building itself was saved, although for hours firefighters weren't sure whether the fire would cause the two church towers to collapse.

      What has been lost is the sense of immutability the cathedral offered to the city and the country. Notre-Dame has stood at the heart of Paris for 850 years, built and seen as a symbol of its glory and power. Now it stands blackened and wounded.

      It will be rebuilt. There is a precedent in France. The cathedral in the city of Reims, where French kings were crowned for 800 years, was left a broken hulk after bombs and fire wrecked it in the First World War. Restoration work on the church began in 1919, a year after the war ended.

      It took more than 15 years for the restoration to be completed and the cathedral fully reopened. It is a precedent, but a sobering one.

      WATCH | What will become of the historic artifacts in the cathedral?

      The magnitude of the loss in Paris is huge. Not only is the skyline now changed, but so much history has potentially disappeared as the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral was engulfed by flames. 2:14

      About the Author

      Don Murray

      Eye on Europe

      A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.

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