A Roman Catholic architectural monument, the cathedral has stood in the centre of Paris for more than 850 years. But it is much more than a religious site – Notre Dame is a national emblem, fixed in French history, culture and identity.
As the blaze raged overnight on Monday, destroying the cathedral’s roof and spire, the devastation was felt by all.
Michel Blanc, 75, who was visiting the French capital from Bordeaux, attended Mass at Notre Dame on Monday before it caught fire. He was among the many French people who returned to look at the cathedral on Tuesday.
“We are Catholic but … this is a part of French heritage,” he said. “[This] beautiful building … it transcends religion.”
In the aftermath of the fire, the French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the monument within five years, as private donors pledged hundreds of millions of dollars towards the project.
Separately, French officials, charitable organisations and religious groups called on the public to help in any way they could with the reconstruction effort.
In response, French-Muslim leaders urged communities to engage in the rebuilding of Notre Dame.
“Today, we call on Muslims in France to show their solidarity by actively participating in the national solidarity campaign that will be launched to find ways to rebuild this place of history of our country,” said the rector of the Lyon Mosque, Kamel Kabtane, in a statement.
“The Muslims of our region are upset by this disaster as much as our compatriots. Notre Dame de Paris, in addition to being a place of worship, is the soul of our country.”
Thousands of people had flocked to the scene of the fire on Monday, watching in disbelief as the flames burst through its roof and toppled its spire. Many stayed through the night, gazing awestruck as firefighters brought the inferno under control in time to save the building’s twin bell towers.
Selsabil Beloued, a 21-year-old student, stayed out late enough to see the blaze conquered and returned to the area on Tuesday.
“As a Muslim anything that happens to a building of worship is a big tragedy,” she said.
“It’s very rare around here that a religious place is so highly regarded – it’s a very secular city – and the very few places that are highly regarded like that, that are very religious, need to be preserved.”
As the extent of the damage became clearer on Tuesday, the disbelief remained raw and sentiments of sympathy were shared by French Jews.
“We are all in shock, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians,” said Joel Mergui of the Union of Jewish Communities in France, in a statement.
“This beautiful cathedral has been part of Paris, of the life of Parisians and of the French for almost a thousand years. I express my deep solidarity and deep sympathy to our Catholic friends, especially affected on the eve of the Easter celebrations.”
Elias Cohen, a 21-year-old Parisian, said that even though he was Jewish and didn’t pray in Christian churches, Notre Dame held a special place in his heart. For him, it was a symbol of his city.
“We can say that the Eiffel Tower is more important but (Notre Dame) is older,” he said. “And you can see it from everywhere in the city. It’s a symbol of Paris and I’m a Parisian so… I don’t know what to say, I have no words, an event like this is very confusing to me.”
Fabien Rothlisberger, 50, a researcher in Paris said he wasn’t surprised by the outpouring of grief across all communities in France.
“This [tragedy] touches a lot of religions … I can’t really explain why but it’s just a feeling inside the heart of everyone,” he said. “Everyone has a connection with this building – it’s different for everyone but I’m sure there is a connection for everybody.”