Fire in the City of Light


A few days before I visited Notre Dame in September 2016, the French police arrested a cell of three female would-be terrorists who were planning a bombing of the cathedral with a car full of gas cylinders. The 23-year old leader of the cell had been previously betrothed to a jihadi who murdered two police officers and then to another jihadid who slit the throat of a priest during a mass in a Normandy church. What a family. Needless to say, the security was tight around Notre Dame, as was around all the major Parisian landmarks, including train stations, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, as well as random street patrols by five-men heavily armed French army squads.

There are no indication that today’s fire at the cathedral was a terror attack or otherwise intentionally lit. The roof and the spire have been undergoing renovations, providing plenty of opportunity for electrical faults or other accidental sparks. If Gothic cathedrals can be described as forests of stone, then Notre Dame’s roof was a literal forest, with some of the timber, harvested from 13,000 oaks, dating back to the 9th century. Combined with the lack of modern fire safety systems, it was a bonfire waiting to happen.

As it is, it could have been much worse; fortunately most of the vaulted brick ceiling withstood the conflagration above it, with only small sections collapsing (see the picture below). The integrity of the 800-year old cathedral ceiling (literal one) largely prevented the fire from spreading to the inside of the building. The damage, while heartbreaking, can and will be repaired; Europe, sadly, is expert at resurrecting destroyed works of architecture. Cities like Warsaw, Wroclaw, Cologne, Dresden, Hamburg and many many others have completely risen from the ashes within a living memory, never mind the victims of more limited acts of God like fires and earthquakes.


Most of the artwork and interior decoration inside the church appears to have been saved, including the altar and the cross:


Apparently so have been the stunning giant stained glass windows. This is what the ceiling and the interior looked like in the better days of 2016:



April 15 is a poignant date. In 769, the Lateran Council of the Catholic Church resolved once and for all that it is permissible for Christians to venerate images, condemning as heresy the iconoclasm that originated in the Byzantine Empire. It’s almost as if the icon destroyers have tried to have their revenge from beyond the grave some 1250 years later. President Lincoln was assassinated and Titanic sunk that day too. Had the Notre Dame turned out to be a terrorist attack, one could have pointed to the anniversaries of the 1936 Arab uprising in Palestine, the US bombing of Libya in 1986 and the Boston marathon bombing in 2013. There are always plenty of coincidences that wait to become meaningful. Fortunately, in this case they’re not.