Category Archives: Architecture

Notre Dame of Gaza: Our Mosques and Churches are Also Burning

As the 300-foot spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris tragically came tumbling down on live television, my thoughts ventured to Nuseirat Refugee Camp, my childhood home in the Gaza Strip.

Then, also on television, I watched as a small bulldozer hopelessly clawed through the rubble of my neighborhood mosque. I grew up around that mosque. I spent many hours there with my grandfather, Mohammed, a refugee from historic Palestine. Before grandpa became a refugee, he was a young Imam in a small mosque in his long-destroyed village of Beit Daras.

Mohammed and many in his generation took solace in erecting their own mosque in the refugee camp as soon as they arrived to the Gaza Strip in late 1948. The new mosque was first made of hardened mud, but was eventually remade with bricks, and later concrete. He spent much of his time there, and when he died, his old, frail body was taken to the same mosque for a final prayer, before being buried in the adjacent Martyrs Graveyard. When I was still a child, he used to hold my hand as we walked together to the mosque during prayer times. When he aged, and could barely walk, I, in turn, held his hand.

But Al-Masjid al-Kabir – the Great Mosque, later renamed Al-Qassam Mosque – was completely pulverized by Israeli missiles during the summer war on Gaza, starting July 8, 2014.

Hundreds of Palestinian houses of worship were targeted by the Israeli military in previous wars, most notably in 2008-9 and 2012. But the 2014 war was the most brutal and most destructive yet. Thousands were killed and more injured. Nothing was immune to Israeli bombs. According to Palestine Liberation Organization records, 63 mosques were completely destroyed and 150 damaged in that war alone, oftentimes with people seeking shelter inside. In the case of my mosque, two bodies were recovered after a long, agonizing search. They had no chance of being rescued. If they survived the deadly explosives, they were crushed by the massive slabs of concrete.

In truth, concrete, cements, bricks and physical structures don’t carry much meaning on their own. We give them meaning. Our collective experiences, our pains, joys, hopes and faith make a house of worship what it is.

Many generations of French Catholics have assigned the Notre Dame Cathedral with its layered meanings and symbolism since the 12th century.

While the fire consumed the oak roof and much of the structure, French citizens and many around the world watched in awe. It is as if the memories, prayers and hopes of a nation that is rooted in time were suddenly revealed, rising, all at once, with the pillars of smoke and fire.

But the very media that covered the news of the Notre Dame fire seemed oblivious to the obliteration of everything we hold sacred in Palestine as, day after day, Israeli war machinery continues to blow up, bulldoze and desecrate.

It is as if our religions are not worthy of respect, despite the fact that Christianity was born in Palestine. It was there that Jesus roamed the hills and valleys of our historic homeland teaching people about peace, love and justice. Palestine is also central to Islam. Haram al-Sharif, where al-Aqsa Mosque and The Dome of the Rock are kept, is the third holiest site for Muslims everywhere. Yet Christian and Muslim holy sites are besieged, often raided and shut down per military diktats. Moreover, the Israeli army-protected messianic Jewish extremists who want to demolish Al-Aqsa and the Israeli government has been digging underneath its foundation for many years.

Although none of this is done in secret; international outrage remains muted. In fact, many find Israel’s actions justified. Some have bought into the ridiculous explanation offered by the Israeli military that bombing mosques is a necessary security measure. Others are motivated by dark religious prophecies of their own.

Palestine, though, is only a microcosm of the whole region. Many of us are familiar with the horrific destruction carried out by fringe militant groups against world cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most memorable among these are the destruction of Palmyra in Syria, Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul.

Nothing, however, can possibly be compared to what the invading US army has done to Iraq. Not only did the invaders desecrate a sovereign country and brutalize her people, they also devastated her culture that goes back to the start of human civilization. Just the immediate aftermath of the invasion alone resulted in the looting of over 15,000 Iraqi antiquities, including the Lady of Warka, also known as the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia, a Sumerian artifact whose history goes back to 3100 BC.

I had the privilege of seeing many of these artifacts in a visit to the Iraq Museum only a few years before it was looted by US soldiers. At the time, Iraqi curators had all precious pieces hidden in a fortified basement in anticipation of a US bombing campaign. But nothing could prepare the museum for the savagery unleashed by the ground invasion. Since then, Iraqi culture has largely been reduced to items on the black market of the very western invaders that have torn that country apart. The valiant work of Iraqi cultural warriors and their colleagues around the world has managed to restore some of that stolen dignity, but it will take many years for the cradle of human civilization to redeem its vanquished honor.

Every mosque, every church, every graveyard, every piece of art and every artifact is significant because it is laden with meaning, the meaning bestowed on them by those who have built or sought in them an escape, a moment of solace, hope, faith and peace.

On August 2, 2014 the Israeli army bombed the historic Al-Omari Mosque in northern Gaza. The ancient mosque dates back to the 7th century and has since served as a symbol of resilience and faith for the people of Gaza.

As Notre Dame burned, I thought of Al-Omari too. While the fire at the French cathedral was likely accidental, destroyed Palestinian houses of worship were intentionally targeted. The Israeli culprits are yet to be held accountable.

I also thought of my grandfather, Mohammed, the kindly Imam with the handsome, small white beard. His mosque served as his only escape from a difficult existence, an exile that only ended with his own death.

Let it burn

I admit to feeling a slight sense of sadness watching the images of flames soaring from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral, but once it was reported that no one had been seriously hurt, my slight sense of sadness quickly gave way to a feeling of pleasure. My slight sadness was because part of me appreciates the considerable amount of quality craftsmanship that went into constructing the thing, and it saddens me to see some of that beautiful work destroyed. But when weighed against the symbolism of a major institution of oppression engulfed in fire, it’s hard not to feel happy.

One of the most well-known critiques of religion – any religion – is Karl Marx’s famous quote that “It [religion] is the opium of the people”. It’s arguably one of the most important things Marx said, because religion controls the lives of billions of people around the world. Even in supposedly secular western countries religion still exerts considerable influence. The most obvious proofs of this fact are fairly numerous. Take, for example, the fact that large numbers of supposedly enlightened westerners still feel the need for religious ceremonies at the most important events in their lives – births, marriages and deaths. So for Marx to point out that this important necessity to the lives of so many people is no more than an artificial relaxant is every bit as revolutionary as anything else he said – and every bit as true.

Of course Marx, was not the only great thinker to realise the illusion of religion. About sixty years before Marx penned his famous quote, the great Tom Paine, for example, observed that,

Al national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.1

Paine’s great book Age of Reason totally destroys the credibility of religion generally, and the Christian bible in particular. With his usual perfect clarity of vision and expression he strikes at the very heart of the phenomenon of religion, and explains why such an utterly irrational and largely deceitful belief system has been allowed to thrive for so long – a human invention “to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”.

Adam Smith, the supposed “father of capitalism”, noted the deep cynicism of religion being used in pursuit of profit even earlier than Paine. Writing in the middle of the eighteenth century about the looting by the Spanish of the Americas, he observed:

… the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project.2

The most successful revolutions against religion occurred in communist countries, such as Russia and China where religion was strongly discouraged. But many other revolutions, such as the French Revolution and Spanish Civil War, also recognised the essential role played by the clergy in maintaining the grotesque oppressions against which they were rebelling. The logic of revolutionary reasoning is convincing, and is basically the same point that Smith and Paine both made: the rich and powerful use religion to justify the massive crimes they carry out in order to stay rich and powerful.

For example, in a recent TV documentary about the legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie, an old newsreel showed a scene from the 1930s where some of the desperate people made homeless from the drought-stricken American prairies were attending a church service. The camera panned slowly over the haggard, care-worn, emaciated faces of the congregation whilst the voice of the preacher could be heard saying how their troubles were “because of how we live”. Their fault in other words, not the fault of a pitiless government that had not long since largely completed its genocide of their own native populations, or of a ruthless banking system where people’s lives were irrelevant compared with profit.

About a century earlier, when thousands of Scottish Highlanders were being savagely evicted from lands they had worked for centuries, the preachers were there colluding with the super-rich as they always have to ensure the grotesque Highland Clearances, cynically known at the time as “Improvement”, would not be resisted by the people:

With a few noble exceptions, the ministers chose the side of the landlords, who built them new manses, made carriage roads to their doors, and invited them to share in the new prosperity now and then with the grant of a few acres of sheep pasturage. In return the churchmen gave God’s authority to Improvement, and threatened the more truculent of the evicted with damnation.3

It’s no coincidence that even today the biggest church congregations invariably comprise poor oppressed people seeking answers for their suffering. Once again they’re told that their misery is all part of some mysterious cosmic plan, controlled by some invisible, all-powerful super-natural being. No doubt many are still being told their suffering is their own fault, and the best they can do is go to church more often, and donate even more of the little they have to church funds.

But the hard inescapable fact about all of the main religions is that none of them can prove the very existence of the god or gods in whom they compel their followers to believe. It’s widely believed by Jews and Christians alike, for example, that their god created man in the image of their god (Genesis 1:27) and that believers were therefore the most supreme of beings with a right to complete dominion over the Earth and everything and everyone on it (Gen 1:28). This teaching has been used to morally justify the vast destruction of our planet and countless billions of other people and other living species. Yet there is no evidence to support the existence of this god that supposedly approves of all this. So it’s far more accurate to believe that god did not create man in his image, but that man created god in his image instead.

So when I watched pictures of flames licking hungrily from the roof of Notre Dame I felt more pleasure than sadness, and I make no apology for that. Let it, and all the others like it burn – unless they be permanently closed down, their priests made redundant, and the space used instead for useful, purely secular, community centres, quiet places where anarchists and communists, for example, could meet up and teach to others the myth of religion, and teach reason instead to the poor and oppressed, that no supernatural being has ordained their suffering, and will certainly not be coming to relieve them of it. They are on their own, and the sooner they realise that the sooner they might decide to combine to do something about it.

  1. Age of Reason, Tom Paine, p. 22.
  2. Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, p. 711.
  3. The Highland Clearances, John Prebble, p. 63.

Burning Gothic: Reflections on Notre-Dame de Paris

But no matter the destruction, the spirit of what it means to be a cathedral can and does survive such catastrophes.

— Becky Clark, Church of England director of cathedrals and church buildings, April 17, 2019

The destruction of the sacred will engender moving responses.  But the scope, and the particularity of that response varies.  The conflagration affecting Notre-Dame de Paris, located on the Île de la Cité, has become a twenty-four-hour saturation phenomenon.  Thirteen million annual visitors, a geographical pride of place at the centre of Paris, and vast repository of France in all matters religious, cultural and political, would have ensured that.

The attention given to other sites of sacred worth tends to be limited.  It is unlikely, for instance, that pledges of up to $113 million, promised by François-Henri Pinault to assist in the rebuilding project, are going to be heading the way of the more obscure sites of desecrated or damaged history.  A south Louisiana parish, for instance, is desperate for funding in rebuilding three Black churches of historic significance burned down in “suspicious’ circumstances. “There is clearly something happening in this community,” suggested State Fire Marshal H. Browning. The funding target for the GoFundMe campaign is $1.8 million.  To date, $1.5 million has been secured.

Notre-Dame will do that to the millionaire and billionaire set: draw attention from the well-heeled and a chance for celebrity posterity in the premier culture league.  (Even wineries such as the Château Mouton Rothschild are re-directing money from auctions to the cause.)  While the idea of purchasing a place of heaven is not as popular as it once was, it still exerts some hold in the secular world through the idea of enduring reputation.  Such gestures of financial promise have also stirred the pot of misplaced empathy for the cultural artefacts of a former colonial power.

People, in short, are not permitted their own singular ways of commemorating or grieving over a damaged or lost icon: they are to be scolded into appropriate acknowledgments and qualifications.  A fine, and slightly perverse example of this came in responses to a remark by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who was rebuked for suggesting that Notre-Dame might be considered in the same breath as “art and architecture”.  Former congressman Joe Walsh fulminated.  “It was a house of worship.  A Catholic Cathedral.  It wouldn’t have been difficult for you to acknowledge that.”

Looking at such structures are also exercises of mutual and mass deception.  Gothic architecture did not always share the enchanting mystery that has made structures such as Notre-Dame de Paris the subject of gooey adoration.  Having lapsed into a mysterious, almost barbaric prior life before the preferences towards Romanesque and the Classicist, such architecture was redeemed by the calls of Romanticism.  Victor Hugo’s pen praised the Gothic form for its freedom, its daring, “encouraging license and dissent from authority,” asserts John Sturrock in his introduction to the 1978 translation of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), commonly known in Anglophone circles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Hugo’s pen, in making the cathedral the protagonist, did the trick: interest in restoring the weathered, damaged structure was stimulated, halting the till then relentless drive towards tearing down Gothic Paris.

The fire that went through the Cathedral has been described variously as catastrophic and disastrous, but the nature of such creations is their permanent vulnerability and susceptibility to change.  A scene from Hugo’s own masterpiece is worth retelling, describing flames as the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo attacks the Truands in an effort to save Esmerelda.  “All eyes were raised to the top of the church.  They beheld there an extraordinary sight.  On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time.”

The building is all (well mostly, now) points, sharpness.  It is jagged, skyscraper coherence.  But to suggest that its body and shell was pure in its medieval form is to fall for a common deception perpetuated from the nineteenth century.  The Gothic restoration mania of the period had the effect of turning Notre-Dame into a modern mutilation.

Eugène Emmanuelle Viollet-le-Duc, aided by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, tended towards heavy restoration between 1845 and 1864 on the grounds that the original Gothic idea of the cathedral needed fuller realisation.  They knew better.  Being somehow in touch with those spirits, they went to work, warned by archaeological preservationist Prosper Mérimée about the dangers of overly keen touching up.  “A restoration may be more disastrous for a monument than the ravages of centuries.”  Hugo, in the same spirit, observed “the countless defacements and mutilations to which men and time have subjected that venerable monument.”

The now destroyed barbed spire of wood and lead (la flèche) was itself was an addition. Viollet-le-Duc also added a new pulpit; original statues were removed from their resting places of centuries; spectacular gargoyles became a feature; and the south façade’s rose window received undue attention.  Paris-born photographer Danie Aubry aptly observed that the Gothic-mad restorer “should have worked for Disney.”  Ironically enough, Monday’s fire is being “potentially linked” to the $6.8 million renovation work that was already underway.

The visceral and rapid response from French President Emmanuel Macron was one of rebuilding.  Cathedral spokesman André Finot spoke of the structure having suffered “colossal damage”, with the frame obliterated.  Not so, countered an optimistic Macron, taking on board the inspirational guise of Viollet-le-Duc.  The rebuilding project would be grand and hurried.  Forget decades; the President wants the structure to be finished in time for re-opening for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.  “We will rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully, and I want it to be completed in five years.”  To that end, an international design competition to rebuild parts of the building has been announced.

The Gothic concept was itself an act of daring on the part of Abbot Suger, who embraced lightness and light in his 1137 design for Saint-Denis.  Platonism, Christianity and religious architecture were wed.  The reconstruction of Notre-Dame might dare to be something different, but many expect a simulacrum of the original.