On impulse, I moved to Paris when I was 18. I figured trading in frat parties and dorms for the Louvre and the Palais Garnier was a better way to begin a math degree. It wasn't the wisest idea.
Paris was glamorous, exciting, and filled with adventure. It was also lonely and embattled by insurgent terrorism and increasingly hostile tensions between political and ethnic minorities. For every day I spent watching the sun set over the Champ de Mars with strangers or dancing in the basement of the Palais de Tokyo, there were others spent aimlessly wandering around the streets of Passy, feeling listless, alone, and furious at myself for begging my parents to let me move to a country where I knew no one and had a high-school level linguistic competency.
I would amble between the Left Bank of Paris (the southern half of the city, divided by the Seine) and the Île de la Cité (one of the only two surviving natural islands in the center of the Seine and the city). The birth of Paris begins on the Île de la Cité, where the Romans established the city of Lutetia more than 2,000 years ago, and the birth of France as a global giant of religion, politics, and culture begins with the Notre-Dame de Paris.
Words can hardly describe the cathedral itself. It's an architectural majesty, with sky-high facades flanked by dozens of life-sized statues. The most famous photographs of Notre Dame often depict the front of the Gothic cathedral, but the best view is from the Left Bank to view all 420 feet of its profile. Countless nights of sitting on the banks of the Seine, just staring at the cathedral, have seared that profile into my mind.
I'm not Catholic, but it was impossible to walk around the cathedral and search for hope without feeling the presence of God. Even in later years when I experienced actual adult problems, the mere thought of strolling to Notre Dame from Shakespeare and Company or Pont Neuf gave me reassurance. Notre-Dame survived Hell and back; her resilience is enough to empower anyone.
Notre Dame is believed to have been built atop a site that used to host a pagan temple and then the Saint-Étienne Basilica. In 1160, Maurice de Sully, the newly elected bishop of Paris, began to tear the Basilica down to its bones to build what would become one of the greatest pieces of Western architecture in human history. Pope Alexander III witnessed the laying of its first stone, and shortly thereafter, construction was overseen by Phillip II, the first monarch to deem himself King of France rather than of the Franks.
To the modern observer, that Notre Dame took a century to build may seem unimpressive, but only a cynic could see the cathedral in full and not be floored. It quickly became a cornerstone of France's expansion, bookending the 200 years of France's emergence as a global superpower. At France's nadir, the English Henry VI was crowned King of France in Notre Dame during the Hundred Years' War. But Notre Dame also hosted the marriage of Margaret of Valois and Henry III of Navarre, who would become the first Bourbon king of France.
The marriage of Margaret and Henry instigated the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, the inevitable culmination of the French Wars of Religion. Huguenots had previously damaged the cathedral's statues in defiance of their supposed idolatry, and King Francis I burned heretics at the stake in front of Notre Dame a few decades before that. So Notre Dame survived the Hundred Years' War, and it survived the Wars of Religion, and it survived being transformed during the French Revolution to worship the Cult of Reason and then the Cult of the Supreme Being. Even as the Jacobins attempted to purge God from the cathedral, at times turning it into a warehouse, Notre Dame persisted until it was finally saved by the Emperor Napoleon. The cathedral then hosted his coronation and his marriage.
Notre Dame survived Nazi occupation, either by mercy or by fate, depending on whom you ask. Nazi Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz has been given credit for disobeying Hitler and refusing to burn the city to ground, but some historians say that the Allies saved the city at the last possible moment. In any case, the cathedral emerged relatively unscathed and served as the center of celebrations for France's liberation.
God, history, and the very ethos of Western liberalism ooze through the hallowed halls of Notre Dame, a living testament to the power of both blind faith and the fortitude of man and freedom. Even as terror began to desecrate the city and divide the people, Notre Dame stood strong, a symbol of France's resilience and a source of inspiration to despondent Parisians, a century departed from the glory of the city's fin de siècle. It's too early to say what the fate of the cathedral will be, but if history serves as any indication, France's kilometer zero will survive.
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