International audiences watched with fixed and grim fascination images of Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, engulfed in flames this week. The 865-year-old church has been badly damaged by the fire, but it is too powerful a symbol to be consumed by this tragedy. It will be rebuilt and Notre Dame will reassume its position at the center of France. But this moment is an important reminder of both the power and evanescence of symbols.
Notre Dame is the heart — literal and figurative — of Paris. It is located on the Ile de la Cite, one of two natural islands in the Seine River. A Roman temple is thought to have first stood on the eastern end of the island, its existence dating from the sixth century; other churches were later built on that site. In 1163, construction began on what was to become Notre Dame when Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone. The cathedral was finished just over 180 years later, in 1345.