The fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was a huge blow to our collective mindsets. There were those that wept, each mourning for their own reasons. Then there were those that ridiculed that pain, pointing out all the other issues they felt were more important than an old church burning down.
The event definitely falls under one of those “where were you when this happened” moments. It’s not just, because an old Catholic church in a prominent country went up in flames. That’s because it opened up a whole slew of issues that we, as humans, feel so strongly about.
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It was news that circled the globe. The world watched in horror as massive fire engulfed the 800+ years of history, reducing it to rubble. Within hours after the fire, French billionaires, companies and ordinary citizens pledged funds to rebuild it, raising close to €900 billion over two days.
Such outpouring of monetary support raised questions about other important causes in France and other parts of the world. Why rebuild an old cathedral when there are so many other causes needing our attention and help?
Despite how you felt about the fire, the incident made light of a number of issues that I think are worth addressing.
Posterity vs social needs of our ancestors
The Notre Dame, like many other historical places, took decades if not centuries, tremendous skill, vision and money to complete. These were projects led by those in power with money, ambition and steadfast determination. The funds for these projects often came from heavy taxes, coffers of the rich and spoils of the wars.
The poor of those days had it a lot worse than we can imagine, yet opulent palaces, churches and monuments were created for posterity. Did they have a lot of say in the matter or was it duty that led our ancestors to building such grandeur structures?
It’s hard to say as history, written by the winners, the rich and the powerful, only shows us their side of the story. Most ordinary people throughout time were illiterate, had limited (if any) rights and probably not a whole lot to say about their lot in life without suffering consequences. With high mortality rates, they probably didn’t live long enough to complain anyway. We can imagine their side, but their voices don’t carry through the centuries.
The wealth and opulence of the past is right in your face when you step into these places. From the expensive materials – fancy marble, gold and stained glass weren’t exactly staples of ordinary home décor – to the skills of the masters that shaped them, everything screams expensive.
Why were those funds not going towards feeding the hungry, helping the poor and the misplaced?
The truth is that it was a different time. There was no equality and the needs of those in power took precedence of the general populous. It doesn’t make it right, but that’s how it was.
Why the Notre Dame Cathedral matters to people
Notre Dame Cathedral is a very old church that has witnessed many important events in France’s history. It’s been part of the country’s social fabric and its history for over nine centuries. From a religious perspective, cultural and historical legacy to an architectural masterpiece, the cathedral is a symbol of France.
Notre-Dame did not appear out of nowhere; it is a human creation that has grown, been altered and attacked, hated and loved, left to rot and brought back to life over nine centuries. It is an edifice that thousands of people have contributed to and protected. Today, it is the symbol of a city that embodies the very best of human achievement in any society – art, culture and architecture. – Globe and Mail
The cathedral has become meaningful for others as well. You don’t have to be French or live in Paris for Notre Dame to mean something to you and that can be different to all of us. Yet, despite its cultural, historical and religious importance, Notre Dame needed renovations for a long time, often struggling to raise funds for the repairs. Where was the support then?
What happened to Notre Dame is what happens to everything else – time. Notwithstanding the impressive workmanship and quality of materials, nine centuries filled with wars, conflict and elements took its toll.
The older buildings get the more maintenance and attention they need. Skilled tradesmen become rarer and the materials change, requiring inventive ways for blending the old with the new. Those repairs become more and more costly. However, as our needs as a society change, other issues become forefront of our minds, taking priority for funding and resources.
Why it’s important to preserve our history
Just like every other time in the past a building of historical and cultural value suffers damages, we lose a piece of our past. The historian in me wept at the loss of knowledge, priceless art and history. The work of many that came before and dedicated their lives to the cause. We can’t replace that.
As I’m not a religious person, a part of me looked at the opulence inside the Notre Dame with disdain. You can’t help but I wonder why so much money went into a church, while people suffered and died from hunger, disease and conflict. I can’t say what motivations, excuses and sacrifices the people of Paris made when they set out to build the church. As I wasn’t there it’s not fair for me to judge their motives.
I couldn’t help but admire the elements meant to inspire awe. The stain glass window, the columns and arches are examples of beauty of the past. Maybe to them it was worth the sacrifice and it’s not my place to question that with my 21st century mind.
Architecture, like all forms of art, is how we measure our progression as a society. Without art, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Art in all forms, usually neglected and perceived as frivolous, is always the first to lose funding. However, like many other things, it’s necessary. A human expression that makes us feel the beauty of freedom.
Many monuments we admire today played a role in how human kind has evolved. Losing them is like losing a piece of our collective knowledge and ourselves.
A devastation of society. Yes, there are many causes needing attention, but we shouldn’t forget those that shaped us into people that care about causes in the first place.
What the fire brought to light
The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral stirred many conversations about many important issues. Whether the immediate reaction turns into meaningful action is another story.
Important causes and how we address them
I truly believe that the Notre Dame will be fine. There is enough money pouring in to build another cathedral, just as grand. These donations have raised questions about the motives of the people behind them (French billionaires I’m looking at you) and whether that money should be used for other things like climate change and helping the poor.
We live in a world of excess and the reality is that people can spend their money as they please. There are celebrities all over the world that spend lavishly on things most people can’t afford. Yet, many who aspire to be like them worship them. Is anyone questioning Kim Kardashian on how much money she spent on renovating her mansion or latest shopping spree while there are starving people all over the world? Not likely.
I don’t think shaming people about their money is the answer. We should be looking at what we are doing to make a difference and promote the issues we believe in. I support many causes close to my heart on a regular basis. My donations aren’t in the billions, but they make a small difference. I do what I can to support what matters to me
Not all things will matter the same way to everyone. That’s fair. If we could solve all the problems, world would be a very different place. Instead, we have to work with that we have. If you want to support the Notre Dame Cathedral renovation project, it’s your right. If you feel that there are more important causes, what are you doing to support them?
There were so many people lashing out online against those that mourned the fire. It was spiteful. We should never admonish anyone for their grief especially if we don’t understand their motivations. If everyone who pointed out another cause that is more important than the fire actually did something to support that cause, we would all benefit. Instead, most do what is convenient – make thoughtless statements from the comfort our screens offer.
Other cultural places needing repairs
The fire at Notre Dame also shed light on the many other buildings and structures that are in disrepair all over the world. Unlike the cathedral that happens to be in the heart of a popular tourist destination, many of them don’t have the funds for repairs and renovations.
Since many of these monuments have been around for centuries, it’s easy to forget that they need constant upkeep. That costs money. If a place of historical and cultural important as the Notre Dame struggles for fund to protect it from devastation, what chance do other, less known places have for survival. That future is bleak.
As a traveller, I always try to donate to the places I visit. These contributions are often how many places raise funds for renovations and upkeep. If we want to become responsible travellers, we have to play our part in preserving the world we live in. Tourism is a great revenue generator if used correctly. It’s not always easy to determine if your funds are going to a legitimate cause or someone’s pocket, but that’s also part of self-education.
Fires are a common reason for destruction of historical properties. Some are accidental while others occur due to arson. The damages are often irreversible and costly. The fire at Notre Dame is only one of many that we know about, because others aren’t as well-known. I can only hope that this will lead to more conversations about preservation and renovation of cultural assets.
What we lost
Ever since the famed library of Alexandria burned down in ancient Egypt, we have been aware of the price that comes with the loss of our past. The library was a repository of the works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. It was the capital of human knowledge and learning. We will never fully know all of the information that was lost in the fire.
There are numerous sites throughout the world that are now lost or in danger of disappearing due to conflict and neglect. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Nimrud in Iraq, the ancient cities of Bosra and Palmira in Syria to the many other sites damaged by war and conflict, the list is endless.
Not all sites suffer from conflict. In 2018, Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burned down, destroying much of its archive of 20 million items. As the biggest natural history museum in Latin America, the museum housed a large collection of prized collections and the nations’ history. Now all gone.
For every person who cares about preserving the past, there are other who don’t care. They thoughtlessly destroy the places they visit, only care about a selfie and have no regard for the history of the places they visit.
What we take out of the Notre Dame fire is up to us. We all have a choice in how we spend our money, what causes we champion and the legacy we leave for the future generations. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can help the ones that matter to us.
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