The photos came pouring in soon after the fire began. The money followed, even before the flames were put out.
Last April 15, Paris and the world united in sorrow as the Notre-Dame Cathedral, an 856-year-old structure, was engulfed in flames. The grief over France’s iconic church was so overwhelming that hundreds of millions of euros were raised within hours.
Damages had yet to be assessed when François-Henri Pinault, the second wealthiest man in France, pledged €100 million for Notre-Dame. Not long after, his rival and the richest man in Europe, Bernard Arnault gifted €200 million to rebuild the cathedral; he also placed his group’s architects and designers at the restoration team’s disposal. L’Oreal owner Françoise Bettencourt Meyers matched Arnault’s €200 million. Patrick Pouyanne of oil giant Total (the country’s largest business by sales) has also pledged to give €100 million.
“It’s not just a building, but a place that is extremely important in terms of collective memory and identity,” Laurent Ferri, Curator of the pre-1800 Collections in the Rare Division and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University and a former curator at the French National Archives, told TIME.
To date, pledges for the Notre-Dame have reached over a billion euros. But the financial largesse and widespread media attention have brought a strange contradiction to the fore:
The fire that razed Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro to the ground destroyed more than just a structure: it took ancient languages, fossils, and valuable artefacts. The amount of money that was raised for its restoration is less than a per cent (about 0.028%) of what Notre-Dame has already received.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, ancient sites are constantly being bombed. The Ancient City of Aleppo is arguably the most recognizable of them all, but in the wake of the humanitarian crisis, its heritage and cultural value have been all but forgotten.
Tourism: Providing a groundswell of support?
Notre-Dame Cathedral is not only a cultural site: It is the most visited tourist attraction and landmark in Paris.
At the time that France’s wealthiest were expressing their grief with money, the rest of the world joined by taking to social media and flooding feeds with photos of Notre-Dame. On Instagram alone, there are over 2.6 million posts for the hashtag #NotreDame.
Prior to the fire, the Notre-Dame was open at least 10 hours per day throughout the week, welcoming roughly 30,000 people a day (50,000 on a busy day) and 13 million people annually, according to Vox.
An actual AP headline reads, “Tourist mecca Notre-Dame also revered as place of worship,” making the case that the cathedral has seen more tourists taking selfies than Catholics kneeling in prayer.
Whether it poses as a site of religious or personal significance, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the most beloved cultural tourism products in the world: a Parisian symbol of beauty, prestige, and heritage, not unlike the luxury empires of the wealthy Pinault, Arnault and Bettencourt Meyers families.
But how much heritage was truly lost in the fire?
The greatest damage was done to the roof, constructed of oak wood from the 13th century, and the central spire. Though many people identify Notre-Dame by this 295-foot spire, it is a recent structural addition to the church, built in the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the 13th-century rose windows and the iconic flying buttresses were undamaged. All the cathedral’s priceless relics and artworks also survived.
The fire might have actually solved some of the cathedral’s previously existing problems: Its state of decay has been in headlines since 2017, with disintegrating limestone patches taped up gargoyles and wooden planks for balustrades.
The deterioration, due to ageing, pollution and acid rain, was not addressed. Custodians of the Notre-Dame asked for more money, and while the French government provided some help, it was not enough.
“The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is in desperate need of conservation. No part of the building has not been subject to decay and there are several areas of concern,” the non-profit Friends of Notre-Dame said on its website. The group, launched in October 2016, was aiming to gather €100 million within next five to 10 years, according to a 2017 TIME article.
No one wanted to foot the bill—until a fire alerted the world. Fortunately, there were more than enough people paying attention.
Not all tourism sites are created equal
At the same time that Notre-Dame was burning, part of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque was on fire. The mosque was built in the eighth century, the second oldest in the world, and the third holiest site in Islam; it is situated in the Old City, a UN-designated World Heritage Site.
The responses to the two fires were as different as day and night.
“None displayed solidarity with Palestinians or Muslims, and no effective action was taken by the UN. Al-Aqsa Mosque is no less a religious and nationalist symbol for Arabs and Muslims than Notre-Dame is for the French,” Ghada Kharmi writes in the Middle East Eye.
The hashtag #AlAqsa currently has about 179,000 posts on Instagram, a mere 6% of the number of photos posted of Notre-Dame on Instagram. As cultural sites, it isn’t possible to pit the value of the Notre-Dame Cathedral and Al-Aqsa Mosque against each other. But at a time where both cultural icons were burning—the world was in Paris with Notre-Dame.
On one hand, the grief that the Notre-Dame commanded in such a short time can be commended as a sign of generosity and devotion. But it would be lazy to look at the lack of responses to cultural tragedies around the world—the National Museum in Brazil, the ancient city of Aleppo, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, among many forgotten others—and say there was no devotion.
The polarity of the response coming from the international community can be blamed, at least partially, on a lack of reach: a gap that tourism has filled over time by mobilizing people all over the world. The billion-euro donation is a testament to the Notre-Dame’s dominance as a site afforded wide-reaching publicity.
Tourism itself isn’t removed from the pressing problem of Eurocentric inequality: The tide of tourists moving from “the West to the rest,” as it’s termed in academic literature, only truly shifted in the past few decades. France is still the most visited country in the world, connoting not only a successful tourism plan, but centuries of looking to the West as the place to be. Western countries still reap the benefits of the bigger cash flow that tourism provides.
“We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years. We can do that,” French President Emmanuel said.
Perhaps one day, when tourism sites and cultural sites are valued beyond their publicity, the world will be united in more than just their photos.
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