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It took 183 years to build France’s most beloved icon. And less than two hours to burn, nearly, to the ground. It felt like the end of an era. But the fire couldn't kill the spirits that animated this extraordinary symbol of human collaboration and ingenuity, for the ghosts given birth by Victor Hugo are immortal.
For eight plus centuries, Notre Dame de Paris has been more than a place of worship cum world-famous tourist attraction. It is the beating heart of a city that rose from the Roman era to become the “gem of Europe” and the “City of Lights.” It is the spot from which the life-blood of Paris has forever pulsed, where children play and families enjoy crepes from Café Esmeralda topped off with Berthillon ice cream. It is the heritage of an entire nation and a monument to the majesty humans are capable of when they trade hate for tools and roll up their sleeves to create, together.
Victor Hugo understood this profoundly. A 19th century Romantic author best known for his books, Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo was also a humanist. He campaigned for social causes such as the abolition of capital punishment. He was a perhaps history’s first advocate of historic preservation.
Born into the post-Revolution Napoleonic era, Hugo’s Notre Dame stood scarred and in ruins. He campaigned for the Cathedral’s restoration, which was ultimately accomplished by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-duc and paid for, in large part, with proceeds from the sales of Hugo’s wildly popular story of the hunchbacked bell-ringer, #quasimodo.
The world watched in horror on 15 April as the 850-year-old masterpiece was engulfed in flames and nearly destroyed in less than two hours. The spire erected by Viollet-le-duc is now gone, reduced to embers. One couldn’t help but wonder: is this the end of Western European Culture? A defining moment in a world wracked by hate?
Then firefighters managed to stop the blaze, saving the Gothic facade and towers. And following in Hugo’s footsteps, citizens the world over pledged to rebuild the Cathedral.
Was it an end? Or a new beginning? Could the burning Notre Dame de Paris represent a turning point, the historic event that reminds us — all of us — what truly matters? Could there be opportunity in this tragedy? A time for humanity to join hands, choose solidarity over bias and fear and rebuild, as Victor Hugo would have done, one of the greatest monuments to art, culture, and human ingenuity.
Victor Hugo’s writings are testament to his optimism and his deeply humanitarian beliefs. He was among the most important cultural figures of his time and continues to be one today. He once wrote, "Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise." Armed with the hope of Victor Hugo, we look forward to the icon rising again, like a phoenix from the ashes.