I could hear the sounds of the Paris subway in the background as my friend Timothee picked up the phone: “I’ve just come to see it. She’s still there, she still stands, and she’s still magnificent.”
Timothee sounded relieved on his way home on Tuesday, only 24 hours after a blaze devastated Notre Dame de Paris.
He and I grew up a few hundred yards away from the iconic cathedral, whose construction started in 1163. Most of our lives revolved around this vessel of stones and metal anchored on the Ile de la Cité, the largest of Paris’s twin islands.
Timothee now lives in Montmartre, but still cycles by Notre Dame every morning on his way to work.
I, on the other end, now live abroad but pictures of the Paris cathedral cover the walls of my bedroom.
From nursery to university, there wasn’t a day I didn’t walk by her. In my student years, I worked in one of the many restaurants nearby, as though it was only natural I would always be in sight of her.
It had seemed as if she, Our Lady – the English translation of Notre Dame – was always watching over me.
Our Lady saw me learn to walk, run and cycle. She saw countless parties on banks of the River Seine, endless hours of listening to the tunes of musicians, lulled by the warmth of a summer night or bitten by the cold of winter mornings.
History looks down
All that time, we Parisians thought we were admiring her beauty, but Monday’s fire made me realise that it was just the other way around. From the top of her two majestic towers, more than 850 years of history was looking down upon us
She watched as Paris grew, and cried, as the city was plagued, occupied and then, finally, liberated. She saw a young military genius Napoleon Bonaparte crown himself “Empereur des Francais” under her nave a few years after a revolution almost tore her apart. She’s seen centuries of weddings and funerals, Easters and Christmases.
She is a treasure for the eyes, whether in the first light of dawn or in the glazing of the night; a comfort for the soul, beyond any religious or political beliefs.
Notre Dame de Paris is one of those very rare monuments in the world that instils a deep feeling of majesty. Of eternity. Beyond tragedies and grief, joy and laughter, looking at her always filled me with inspiration.
As French President Emmanuel Macron so rightly said as the flames were still eating her alive: “Notre Dame is at the epicentre of our lives.”
She is a jewel of Gothic art, the first of a kind, which then inspired so many kings, prelates and architects across Europe and beyond. She is a gift to mankind.
Some will see a miracle
When we heard she could collapse, as the fire was spreading to the northern tower, our hearts stopped beating. Whether standing on the banks of the Seine or glued to a TV screen at the other end of the world, our blood froze, all at the same time.
We all felt that our lives would never be the same again, that a deep void would inhabit us forever. But thanks to the immense courage of the Paris firefighters who ran into the fire and climbed up the towers to master the blaze, she was saved.
Some of her artwork vanished into the night, but most of it was preserved.
“She still stands”, my friend Timothee whispered to me half a world away, but it all felt so near.
Some will see a miracle, as the Easter celebrations get under way. Others, the genius of an architect whose name to this day remains unknown. He is said to be a mason, a builder from among the people of Paris.
The ogival vault he designed in the middle of the 12th century, beyond the feeling of grandeur it was due to inspire, was serving a very specific purpose: preventing the propagation of a fire.
And so it did. The “forest” (the nickname for the eight century-old carpentry) burned and fell, the spire collapsed, but the towers and the structure remain.
Light will again run through the magnificent stained glass of the rose windows.
In perhaps a sign of destiny, the copper statue of the rooster – the French emblem – that dominated Paris at the top of Notre Dame’s spire was found damaged but intact among the rubble. And so are the inestimable relics contained within, which were thought to have been lost forever.
The genius of her builders, thousands of men and women who, over the centuries, patiently carved her beauty, is still there, most of it. As for the rest, we will rebuild. Our dear Lady, you have given us so much that now, it’s high time we gave something back to you.
Stephane Faure is a deputy news editor for Al Jazeera English