Last night, the impossible happened. For hours, the iconic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris stood engulfed in flames, as millions of people around the world watched live as fire consumed centuries of human achievement – one of the greatest cathedrals of all time.

Symbolically enough, this year’s Holy Week started with a terrible reminder of how fragile our collective cultural heritage can be, and how difficult it is to protect even the most cherished and visited of world heritage sites ever built.

As firemen and experts assess the extent of the damage after yesterday’s fire, a number of inevitable questions arise: What do yesterday’s events mean for the world’s cultural heritage at large, and why should the terrible loss suffered by the French Nation become an invaluable lesson for countries all around the world?

The World’s Cultural Heritage is „All of Us”.
We should never take it for granted!

Some buildings are simply steel, wood and concrete, put together without much care or attention to detail, except they should be robust enough to serve their basic purpose well, such as storage. Other buildings we call “home”, the word that since time immemorial has meant a lot to us, irrespective of our cultural or religious background. We always spend time to carefully plan and gather the means and resources necessary to make our homes reflect us, our ambitions, goals and aspirations, help others understand what we (wish to) stand for, or how we would like others to see us.

And then there is an altogether different category of buildings. Those that make us pause and reflect. Those that inspire us to think about a little more than our immediate goals, hungers and ambitions. Such buildings are often millennia old and were built and improved upon over centuries, by thousands of people, who, over their lifetimes, became the most outstanding craftsmen in their disciplines, whether it is painting, stone masonry or architecture.

Non omnis moriar

There can be many reasons why buildings of such magnitude and depth are built in the first place. Sometimes, it’s an expression of a single person’s ambition or need, strengthened by the resonance of the general cause. On other occasions, they are built to reflect a powerful emotion or a state of mind, both collective and individual, such as gratitude, trust or hope. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is one such building.

Mankind’s greatest examples of cultural heritage are built as monuments to humanity’s faith, knowledge, even uncertainty about the future – the ultimate inability to answer some of the most important questions ever posed, such as: Why are we here? or Are we alone in the vast expanses of the universe?, or What happens after we die?, not to mention the infinite incarnations of What’s the purpose of…?

Our home is our memory. Our memory is our future.

Buildings that are visited by millions of visitors every year are often a reflection of mankind’s deepest paradoxes and contradictions. Irrespective of the times or geographic zone, we have had the confidence, even the arrogance to build lavish, gold-plated architecture at a time and in places where gold itself had the power to save lives. In a sense, world heritage sites are also a reflection of our deepest humility and uncertainty.

The world’s cultural heritage is not about places that are merely a pretext for a vacation trip or a photo opportunity for a family album. Experiencing them is almost never about seeing, touching and sensing only. They have the power to transform us, to unite the knowledge and memory of the past to redefine our future.

The Wawel Hill in Kraków, Poland (April 2019)

Are we protecting our collective home?

Symbolically enough, yesterday, as the news of the fire in Paris was spreading all over the world, here at Kraków Heritage, we were in the process of filming this video (see below), over the Wawel Hill in Kraków, the single most iconic cultural heritage site in Poland.

If ever there was a historic home for Poles scattered all over the world, symbolised by a single piece of architecture, the Wawel Castle in Kraków would be it, the very first association we all have, no matter  where we live, whether in France, Germany, Britain, Brazil or Australia.

To Poles, the Wawel Hill in Kraków is the backbone or the country’s national identity. To think that it could be consumed by fire overnight, after it has survived dozens of wars and and centuries of historical turmoil, is beyond imagination.

Tomorrow…

After what happened in Paris last night, the world will unite to not only rebuild the great Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris but also make sure that our collective cultural heritage is safer, better protected and preserved for our children’s children, if only to acknowledge mankind’s millennia-old desire to leave a worthy legacy behind, one that stands as a reflection of our collective wisdom, responsibility and good will, in a world where selfish narrow-mindedness has always been an alternative.

The world’s cultural heritage, therefore, has never been only about demonstrating humanity’s skills and knowledge. It has always been about one of the oldest stories mankind has ever written: that of good and evil.