On 480 BC, took place an event that marked our civilization forever. The second and last attempt of the powerful Persian empire to conquer and eliminate the Greek cities, after their first defeat some years earlier. Their huge army arrived to Attica, crossing Thermopylae, where the alliance of the Hellenic cities have been defeated while their enormous fleet was approaching by the sea . After Thermopylae, all of Euboea, Phocis, Boeotia and Attica fell to the Persian army, which at the end captured and burnt Athens. However, a larger Allied army fortified the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, protecting the Peloponnesus from Persian conquest.
Delfi’s oracle had emitted a first desperate statement announcing the fore-coming disaster of Athens, urging the Athenians to flee to save themselves. The Athenians scared asked again the oracle, and Pythia emitted a second ambiguous statement:
τῶν ἄλλων γὰρ ἁλισκομένων ὅσα Κέκροπος οὖρος
ἐντὸς ἔχει κευθμών τε Κιθαιρῶνος ζαθέοιο,
τεῖχος Τριτογενεῖ ξύλινον διδοῖ εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
μοῦνον ἀπόρθητον τελέθειν, τὸ σὲ τέκνα τ᾽ ὀνήσει.
μηδὲ σύ γ᾽ ἱπποσύνην τε μένειν καὶ πεζὸν ἰόντα πολλὸν
ἀπ᾽ ἠπείρου στρατὸν ἥσυχος, ἀλλ᾽ ὑποχωρεῖν
νῶτον ἐπιστρέψας· ἔτι τοί ποτε κἀντίος ἔσσῃ.
Meaning in short, that everything in their city will be destroyed but they could be saved by the “wooden walls”.
Many modern translations of the ancient Greek literature, are committing a common mistake, as mentioned by the philosopher Kornelius Kastoriades, due to our modern concept of “state-land” instead of the classical “state-citizenship” concept, the ancient Polis. They translate often the word “Athenians” or “Spartans” (the community, the Polis, the citizens forming the community) as “Athens” or “Sparta”. The ancient Greeks and writers were not used to write something like “Athens has decided one thing or another” as we today say France has decided, or Germany has done, Europe has committed to …, Paris won or lost against… That was simply unthinkable for them. Athens was a geographical location, the monuments, the homes, the fields. The city was the citizens. The Parisians, the Athenians, the French, the Europeans.
The laws of the “Polis” was starting by the phrase “The Athenians have decided…”. Not the state. Not the king. Not even their Gods. When they ware talking about the facts, actions or events, the usual saying was “The Athenians moved, decided, met with, voted, send ambassadors, messengers, gifts etc”. Athens was a geographical place including everything the Athenians loved and owned: their temples, their homes, their belongings, their land, their seas, their light.
For the Athenians, and the ancient Greeks, knew in the deepest of their spirit and minds, that no matter how much they loved their temples, their homes, their land, their Parthenon, their Notre Dame, what they really had was their community, the “Polis”. Wat really mattered was the feeling that they share something unique among themselves: a culture, a state of mind, as we do the modern Europeans and that they are alive caring that bond and knowledge. This intangible bond and their own lives was the most precious thing that could be lost: the Polis. The people could be enslaved or killed and lost forever. Their monuments, were born and re-borne form that bond, their memories, their culture.
Then, in 480 BC, a unique think in history has happened: a community of free citizens, the Athenians, during an open and very vivid dialogue, not a general or a king but the citizens themselves, have decided, listening to the advice of Themistocles, a great statesman against the opinion of his political opponents, and they voted, to abandon their beloved city. To leave their homes to the hands of the Persians without fight, to be burned down to ruins and destroyed and flee. The finally fought in the sea. The Polis was themselves. The wooden walls were their ships.
The rest is well known history: they have seen with their own eyes from the near by island of Salamis, their city burning, their first beautiful Parthenon on the top of Acropolis, their homes and temples, and cemeteries, their fields and their gods, burned down to ruins, ravaged by the wild waves of the history and the armies of the Persians. But the allied Greek fleet, defeated the invaders and destroyed the Persian fleet in the strait of Salamis.
The Persians never returned. The Athenians went back to their land and they built again and better the Acropolis, the Parthenon we all know today. They rebuilt and invented what we are today: the philosophy, the arts, the theater, the new laws, the democracy, the golden age.
Parthenon as well as Notre Dame of Paris, was not build in stone. It was built in spirit and knowledge. Notre Dame, as well as Parthenon, is not part of “Paris”, neither of “Europe”. It is part of the Parisians, the French, the Europeans. Something inside us all, as President Macron said.
Fortunately compared to the Athenians, we, the French, the Europeans, thanks to the people of Renaissance, the scientists and the archaeologists, the decision makers, the researchers, the programmers, the new digital technologies, the tax payers money and private initiatives, the ambition of our societies to survive, as the Athenians used to do, we have developed far more means and technologies. And we have them in our hands to reconstruct the physical Notre Dame de Paris.
A lot of damages and disasters had happened to the famous Parisian monument in the past.
“The spire, which had been damaged by the wind, was removed in the second part of the 18th century”.
“The cathedral was functioning in the early 19th century, but was half-ruined inside and battered without. In 1831, the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by r, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had an enormous success, and brought the cathedral new attention. In 1844 King Louis Philippe ordered that the church be restored. The commission for the restoration was won by two architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was then just 31 years old. They supervised a large team of sculptors, glass makers and other craftsmen who remade, working from drawings or engravings, the original decoration, or, if they did not have a model, adding new elements they felt were in the spirit of the original style. They made a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the original spire (including a statue of Saint Thomas that resembles Viollet-le-Duc), as well as adding the sculpture of mythical creatures on the Galerie des Chimères. The restoration lasted twenty five years”. Ironically the current disaster took place during restauration efforts.
Many people are wondering today why we spend so much effort and money to document, to digitize, to model, to scan, to develop new tools and methods, to understand, to narrate whats behind, to explain to everybody, what we mostly love and cherish. Notre Dame is one of the most well studied, documented, scanned, photographed, digitized monuments of the world. Stone by stone, glass by glass, piece by piece the Gothic cathedral will be reconstructed soon, as it happened with the Liceo Opera house fire In Barcelona some decades ago with far less information and means available at the time.
This task will be easier, the time will be faster, the accuracy of reconstruction will be better, the new safeguards to be installed will be certainly stronger and will integrate technologies against the old enemies of our monuments: the accidents, the fire, the war, the natural disasters the social unrest and the violent changes of history.
The answer to the question why we need to invest so much effort and money in order to document, to digitize, to uncover, to analyze, to narrate our monuments (but still is very far from enough to cover all our European monuments, inside and outside Europe, our tangible and intangible heritage) is not only in order to understand and interpret them better. It is something deeper: the knowledge, the stories, the spirit, the information is a safeguard of what we are ourselves. Digitizing, documenting, narrating our heritage does not protect the monuments from disappearing. It safeguards ourselves, the Parisians, the Greeks, the Germans, the French, the Europeans our bonds and our values, our strength and our prosperity.
As far as the information and the people who care it in their hearts, spirits and documents are alive, every monument is alive.
There fore we can conclude with an optimistic message: our Notre Dame is still alive!