The title of this comment, tragically the heartrending refrain in Paris on Monday, encapsulates the devastation that the heart of France, indeed one of the landmark symbols of Europe, has had to endure.
The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral has gutted one of the emblematic fountainheads of religion and culture, one that had survived the onslaughts of the French Revolution of 1789 and the two World Wars (1914-18 and 1939- 45). The collapse of the spire symbolises that destruction, verily institutional. Such tragedies shape history as do momentous events.
Yet given the traditional resilience of France, the world must fervently hope that both the country and the monument will recover not the least in the context of President Macron’s pledge to “rebuild the cathedral”. It redounds to the enormous credit of the Paris fire brigade that after an hour, it was able to bring part of the fire under some degree of control.
Thus were certain parts of the cathedral protected, raising hopes that these may yet survive. But by then the worst had already happened. For the city as much as the nation, the enormity of the devastation will be painful and immense, resonating across the echo chambers of Europe. Viewed through the historical prism as it arguably must, Notre Dame is the embodiment of the French capital and of France itself.
It has been in its place since the 12th century and was the venue of marriages of the greatest of French kings, pre-eminently of Henry IV, and of Emperor Napoleon. Nay more, Notre Dame is intimately connected with the history of England and Scotland. Henry VI was crowned king of France here. It was in this cathedral that Francois I married Mary Stuart ~ later Mary, Queen of Scots.
It was here too that Charles I, often debunked as England’s “most reprehensible king”, took his wedding vows. It was at Notre Dame that the liberation of Paris in 1944 was observed in a service of thanksgiving. Profound no less has been the literary dimension of the place.
Aside from being an iconic Parisian building, Victor Hugo in his novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame ~ in French the title is Notre- Dame de Paris, similar to the cathedral ~ made the building itself come alive. Notre Dame, in a word, belongs to European civilisation; this supremely important medieval building has long been the unrivalled embodiment of art ~ in the greatness of its carvings, its paintings, its music and its collections.
Paris has suffered destruction and loss during the Easter week, not to forget the most vicious acts of terrorist violence. It would be premature just yet to speculate on what ignited the devastation. Notre Dame Cathedral will rise again. As historical grandeur lies in ashes, the comity of nations must share the loss that France has suffered.