Like many of my archaeologist, Medievalist, and architectural historian, urban historian, and preservationist colleagues, I watched aghast at the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris yesterday (and was saddened to hear of a fire at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem). People much smarter than I am have already helped the world contextualize the fire at Notre Dame.
Seeing the church on fire reminded me how devastating fires are to wood-roofed buildings. The buildings that I study – wood-roofed, basilica-style Early Christian period churches in the Eastern Mediterranean – have almost all succumbed to fire at various points in their history. In fact, the poor state of preservation of this style of church is largely the result of their susceptibility to fire especially in a period when candles and oil lamps provided the main source of light both for these buildings and for other buildings nearby. If these buildings did not burn in antiquity, as many did including, most famously, the first two churches of Ay. Sophia in Constantinople, and, in a slightly different context, the Parthenon in Athens, they often succumbed over the course of the Middle Ages (as did so many Medieval churches) or even in the modern period when fire destroyed the church of Ay. Dimitrios in Thessaloniki. As we witnessed on television yesterday, the wooden roofs, the airy and open spaces of the building, and the tall walls created a scenario where fires not only spread quickly, but were difficult to extinguish (even today).
In many cases, buildings were rebuilt marking the place of the earlier structure, as we documented at the site of Polis on Cyprus or Justinian’s Great Church in Constantinople. The roof of the Parthenon was restored after its destruction in the 3rd or 4th century despite the general decline of monumental, urban, paganism. The basilica at Lechaion in the Corinthia, which stood as one of the largest churches in the world when it was built in the 6th century, saw a small post-destruction building constructed largely of spoliator rubble at the spot. After the fire of 1917, prominent Greek architect Aristotelis Zachos restored the great church of Ay. Dimitrios. The desire to restore these monuments speaks to the power, not just of the buildings, but of their places within the urban landscapes.
As a historical religion, Christianity has a strong attachment to places in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and in how it sees its past Christian landscapes and monuments in the present. Of course, not all historic Christian buildings are treated equally. Small-town churches are regularly turned into private residences at the end of their lives as religious buildings. At the same time, Christian buildings receive constant renovations, updates, expansions not only for economic reasons, but also to preserve their place in the local landscape.
The fire at Notre Dame made clear both the traditions of continuity in the Christian landscape as commentators stressed the historical nature of the building and role in the faith of the city of Paris while overwriting the history of modification, adaptations and restorations.
At the same time, the city of Paris is diverse, modern, and secular. The building itself, as several commentators have noted, has taken on a place within the national identity of France as the presence of political figures at the site and condolences from the international community has shown. Some have gone so far to note that the lack of funding for the renovations made the building vulnerable. This status of the building as a cultural landmark, a heritage site, and a symbolic center in the French national landscape informed the renovation of the building as early as the mid-19th century and shows all the signs of informing its future.
The mapping of Christian views of historical landscapes atop national identity is not new or novel in the case of Notre Dame. At the same time, the modern preoccupation with preserving the past, however, as a monumental anchor amid the contingency of the contemporary world, offers a particular challenge in the aftermath of a tragedy like the Notre Dame fire. Does France (and Paris) attempt to restore the building to its former design, shape, and character in an effort to preserve historical roots in a time when the past seems increasingly irrelevant and contested?
Or do they follow the route of their Medieval and Early Christian predecessors of recognizing the historical legacy of the building, while also embracing the fire as a moment of discontinuity with the past that allows for rebirth?