16 Apr 2019

Notre Dame fire: What the medieval cathedral means to the French

11:10 am on 16 April 2019

By Henri Astier for BBC News

No other site represents France quite like Notre-Dame.

People kneel to pray on the pavement as flames engulf Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. - A

People kneel to pray on the pavement as flames engulf Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo: AFP

A massive fire consumed the cathedral, gutting and destroying the roof of the Paris landmark and stunning France and the world.

Its main rival as a national symbol, the Eiffel Tower, is little more than a century old. Notre Dame has stood tall above Paris since the 1200s.

It has given its name to one of the country's literary masterpieces. Victor Hugo's novel Hunchback of Notre Dame is known to the French simply as Notre Dame de Paris.

The last time the cathedral suffered major damage was during the French Revolution, when statues of saints were hacked by anti-clerical hotheads. The building survived the 1871 Commune uprising, as well as two world wars, largely unscathed.

It is impossible to overstate how shocking it is to watch such an enduring embodiment of our country burn.

Locals are not famous for their sunny disposition, but few can walk along the banks of the Seine in the central part of the capital without feeling their spirits rise at the majestic bulk of Notre Dame.

It is one of the few sights sure to make a Parisian feel good about living there.

The blaze is being fought from ground level.

Built over a century starting in 1163, Notre Dame is considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture. It is renowned for its rib vaulting, flying buttresses and stunning stained glass windows, as well as its many carved stone gargoyles. Photo: AFP

Like all cherished places everywhere, it is not one residents visit very often. In the three decades I spent in my native city, I can't have been inside Notre Dame more than three or four times - and then only with foreign visitors.

There are many of those. The cathedral is not just Europe's most popular tourist site. Eight centuries after its completion, it is also still a place of worship - 2000 services are held there every year.

But it is also much more than a religious site. President Emmanuel Macron has expressed the shock of a "whole nation" at the fire. As Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said, Notre Dame is "part of our common heritage".

Many of those looking on as flames engulf the building are in tears. Their dismay is shared by believers and non-believers alike in a nation where faith has long ceased to be a binding force