UC Berkeley history professor Peter Sahlins grew up near Paris and returns there often.
And he was there Monday when fire gutted one of the most historic buildings on the planet, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris or, as most call it, Notre Dame.
“I grew up near Paris when the front of the church — the parvis — was a parking lot,” Sahlins wrote in an email from Paris. “I read Victor Hugo in college and understood how a Catholic Church could become a Romantic symbol of the French nation a generation after it was desecrated during the French Revolution.
“I think all French historians, among others, are devastated beyond words.”
Cathedral spokesperson Andre Finot told French media that the building had sustained “colossal damage” and that the Medieval wooden interior had been gutted. The central spire and roof also were casualties of the quick-moving blaze.
Late in the day, however, emergency officials said that the iconic twin towers had been saved and that the exterior structure of the cathedral had been preserved.
Another Berkeley historian, Thomas Laqueur, says the loss to the world is difficult to comprehend.
“It’s been a sweeping away of this site,” Laqueur says. “In some ways it’s like the burning of the Library of Alexandria (in 48 BC). There isn’t the same kind of archive, but it’s of that level of importance in terms of historical destruction. What other building has the same meaning around the world? Maybe the Great Wall of China. Maybe the Acropolis in Athens.
“It was built in the 12th century, but before that it was a Roman site, so its history goes back much further. It has a huge amount of meaning.”
Berkeley historian Geoffrey Koziol says that the American public generally struggles to grasp the importance of Notre Dame to Paris and to the French, more than half of whom identify as Roman Catholic and for whom Notre Dame is hugely symbolic.
“We don’t have anything that is comparable,” he says. “We don’t have anything that is so central. Notre Dame is literally in the center of the city, the oldest part of the city. That area goes back to the Gauls and the second century BCE. It’s part of the very identity of Paris. It is the zero point from which mileage in France is marked off. This is striking a blow at the very heart of France.
“We have the White House, but it’s not central; it was built on swamps in what was at the time nowhere. The French have this thing about religion being deeply imbedded in the creation of France even as they have rejected religion. But that doesn’t make these places less important, it makes them more important in the way that Americans fight over confederate monuments. We haven’t solved that. The French haven’t solved it either. They just live with it. It represents the unresolved tension that is the heart of French identity.”
Building began on Notre Dame, on Île de la Cité on the Seine River, in 1160 and it took the French a century to get the bulk of it built. For much of the last eight centuries the Roman Catholic structure has been, according to Shalins, the focal point of Parisian life in ways that surpassed religion.
In 1548, rioting Huguenots did some damage, removing some statues they considered idolatrous. After rebuilding took place during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the French Revolution took a toll on the building, which was plundered. Hugo’s publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame led to a restoration effort in the mid-19th century. And during World War II the building took some minor damage as Paris was being liberated from Nazi control.
But the building has long needed extensive repair, and Sahlins says the current repair work may have led to Monday’s fire.
“The fire, which seems certainly to be the fault of under-supervised construction work, was likely avoidable,” Sahlins says. “That makes this an especially bitter tragedy for all of us.”
Laqueur says that while the history of the building is immense, so too is the structure itself, perhaps the greatest example of Gothic architecture, not to mention the artwork the cathedral housed.
“It was the first great innovative cathedral,” Laqueur says. “When you learn about architecture, you learn about Notre Dame. Yes, it’s the site where French history happened, but it’s important to the world outside of France, too. The Cult of Reason started there. And the French Revolution had impacts in many places, including China.
“It’s difficult to imagine a place that carries as much history and culture and meaning,” he says. “It’s simply a remarkable place.”
Sahlins says being on hand to see Monday’s blaze brought Paris together.
“The crowds are dense outside the security perimeter,” he says. “But most of Paris seems glued to the television and to social media. Luminaries, including ex-mayors of Paris and ex-ministers of culture are speaking with great solemnity and sorrow. Friends are calling and consoling each other.
“There are other spectacular examples of Gothic architecture in Paris and France. What will be most missed by the French — and the tourists, given that it’s the most visited monument in the country — is its iconic status. Despite being a Catholic Church, Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris and the French nation, which is why President Macron tweeted about the `emotion of the whole nation’ and expressed solidarity not just with Catholics but with all the French people.”