Watching the videos of Notre Dame de Paris burning Monday, my heart hurt in ways it hasn’t since videos and photographs emerged after Islamic State terrorists tore down the Monumental Arch of Palmyra in Syria just a few years ago, also smashing museum statues in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
The Palmyra Arch dated back to the reign of emperor Septimus Severus sometime in the third century. The cathedral in Paris is also extremely old, its construction started in the 1160s, while some of the treasures inside are even older than that.
The damage to Notre Dame, including the complete collapse of its familiar and beloved spire, is by all accounts a tragic accident, related to efforts to renovate a landmark cherished by people all over the world. And most of the art was apparently saved — much of it removed for safekeeping before renovation even began. That’s different from the death of the arch and the slew of antiquities that had been housed in museums the terrorists sledge-hammered down.
But the mourning when treasures, including buildings, that tie us to the past — to people and places that came before us and shaped the world in which we live and our understanding of it — is largely the same. The wound feels personal and grievous.
We all know we each live for a mere blink on the human timeline — and the older I get, the shorter that time seems to me. But an edifice that houses treasures, all tested by time and passed down and protected from one generation to the next going back centuries, reassures us humanity remains connected even beyond our deaths, despite differences in culture, philosophy and habits.
Time itself, it seems, remembers bits of us and passes us on through the artifacts of each generation that are gathered and preserved and bear witness to our lives and what we valued. One need not even see them in person: A photo of the pyramids in Mexico or the coliseum in Italy can remind us we are not the first nor will we be the last to walk this planet. And while their civilizations were extraordinarily different from ours and from each other, we see them and hold dear a connection to humanity itself.
Natasha Frost in Quartz on Monday explained it like this: “In so many people’s cultural imaginations, Paris is not supposed to change. Monuments such as Notre Dame are not supposed to be affected by the passage of time; but nor was the National Museum of Brazil, or the treasures of Palmyra, or the Glasgow School of Art, or any other cultural treasures we’ve had snatched from us.”
The treasured remnants of lives that came before also comfort us, reminding us when we are vexed by troubled times that, indeed, this too shall pass and life endures. People survive a lot. Museums and cathedrals and the treasures they house show how philosophies, relationships and the implements of daily life change and reconfigure over time, some for better, some for worse, but always dynamic and interconnected. Just wait a moment — sometimes a very long moment — and things will change again.
But the pain felt watching an iconic building burn or staring at photos of rubble that used to be treasures is simply too immense to capture in words.3 comments on this story
That is probably why the world was treated to one of the greatest, most heartfelt and beautiful choir performances of all time this week. A stunned and grieving crowd in Paris found a way to express shared love and sorrow, offering up a hundreds-of-voices-strong rendition of a hymn as they watched the blaze attack a building many consider a sacred space. If you didn’t see it, the videos of the crowd singing "Ave Maria" will break your heart.
But it will also remind you that humans, in times of tragedy, unite and produce something beautiful — almost as if they can’t help themselves. Generation to generation.