Never mind Timbuktu, austerity’s out of the stained glass window for Notre Dame

Monday April 22 2019

The Rosette of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris on April 22, 2019, is covered with protective material, seven days after a fire devastated the cathedral. PHOTO | AFP

The Rosette of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris on April 22, 2019, is covered with protective material, seven days after a fire devastated the cathedral. PHOTO | AFP 

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You would not believe it, but even I was touched. Footage of the burning Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) elicited shock and disbelief in people such as me who, not being French nor Catholic, could be said to have nothing at all to do with whatever loss arose from that inferno, save if one were interested in the speculative forensics of whodunit.

Yes, I was moved, I am ashamed to admit, because I know a little about that ancient building, having visited it a couple of times, and also having read about it in a number of books and documents.

Though people generally take “la Tour Eiffel,” the Eiffel Tower, as the symbol of the City of Lights, maybe all that has been injustice done to the Cathedral, which should really have pride of place. I remember the first time I beheld it, thinking that it looked like a huge sea-going vessel coming into dock.

The edifice took more than a century to build (1160s-1240s), and is/was a truly awe-inspiring monument to Gothic architecture and art, even to me, who is neither a connoisseur nor a keen student. It was mainly made of stone, but it was also known as “The Forest” because of the almost two thousand trees of the hardest of woods that were used therein, a veritable destroyer of the environment.

This architectural wonder has hosted numerous French national events, baptisms, weddings, coronations and funerals. Famously, Napoleon Bonaparte, drunk on power and self-love, chose it as the venue of his self-coronation – he himself placed the imperial crown on his head – in 1804.

When Paris was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, it was the powerful chimes of the Cathedral that proclaimed announced the joyful tidings, and when the war hero Charles de Gaulle died in 1970, that is where his funeral took place.



For those who incline to the arts, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame stands out as the novel that immortalises the place, with the aid of the unforgettable hunchback Quasimodo, the butt of aristocratic derision and cruelty while he undergoes torture because he dares to stand in the defence and protection of the beautiful and sensuous Gypsy woman, Esmeralda.

Oh, the dramas of history, the ambitions of great men and the emotional passions of men of means and women of charm… that all that should go up in flames and end up as ashes?

Jamais! said the French. Notre Dame shall never die! We shall rebuild it boulder by boulder till it is restored to its former glory, according to Emmanuel Macron, the French president who has been the obdurate champion of austerity, which means, inter alia, less sending on such “unproductive” things as… Notre Dame.

The French elite have stepped up to the plate, cheque-books open in jaw-dropping generosity from people who have been known for their stinginess when it comes to social issues such as poverty and migration.

In less than a week and in quick succession, the owners of luxury goods Kering and LVMH had pledged three hundred million Euros; L’Oreal came in with two-hundred million; Total chipped in with a hundred million…

The others followed, in a long queue that included financiers, bankers, big merchants, insurance companies, civic councils, airlines, forestry companies, steel companies, concrete makers, plus all sorts of contributions from all sorts of sources.

Obviously, they have all been touched, and I, who am neither rich nor generous, can understand this overflow of hospitality on the part of French or, a la rigeur, on the part of European/Western philanthropists. After all, Notre Dame is their cultural patrimony, and their sense of self, their desire to preserve what identifies them is totally logical.

But then, I got news that the King of Morocco, Mohammed Vl, has also contacted the Catholic authorities in France to pledge his financial contribution to the restoration of Notre Dame, though I could not confirm how much.

I was taken aback by this news, because, though I know that His Majesty is a man of culture and must therefore have been touched by the fire and destruction, probably more than I, still maybe he should, as a Defender of the Faith, have reserved his generosity, first and foremost, for the recovery and restoration of the archives at Timbuktu, the most ancient university of the world, vandalised and destroyed by terrorists a few years ago in Mali?

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]