Notre Dame: Paris's iconic cathedral with Arab architectural influences

Notre Dame's trefoil arches were first seen in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, adopted by the symbol of the Crusader Knights Templar.

After a devastating fire in 2019, the Notre Dam, a 1,000-year-old symbol of French pride and identity, is nearing its reopening, yet few know its connection to Syria's Qalb Lozeh and Middle Eastern architecture
After a devastating fire in 2019, the Notre Dam, a 1,000-year-old symbol of French pride and identity, is nearing its reopening, yet few know its connection to Syria's Qalb Lozeh and Middle Eastern architecture

Notre Dame: Paris's iconic cathedral with Arab architectural influences

On time and on budget, despite delays caused by the pandemic, the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris, France’s most famous Gothic cathedral, is nearing completion.

The external scaffolding will be gone by the summer so that visitors to the Paris Olympic Games from 26 July till 11 August will gaze upon the same familiar silhouette, and the internal refurbishment will be ready for Sunday Mass at the official reopening on 8 December.

When French President Emmanuel Macron first stood beside the smouldering ruin in April 2019 and vowed to the French nation on live TV ‘We will rebuild it within five years, all of us together’, it had seemed like mission impossible.

How on earth have the French managed this remarkable achievement? The answer can be summed up in three words - leadership, money and workforce. The leadership has been inspiring, and even though the French general originally appointed to be in overall charge was tragically killed in a hiking accident last year, a replacement, also with a Ministry of Defence background, was quickly found.

This video grab, created from an AFP video taken on April 11, 2024, shows scaffolding inside Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral has been restored since the devastating fire ravaged it on April 15, 2019.

So much money has flooded in through public donations that there will even be plenty left over for future maintenance. And finally, strenuous efforts have been made to recruit engineers, architects and craftsmen at the top of their game.

Top people work faster, and this is nothing new. In Sicily when the Normans captured the Arab capital of Palermo for themselves and ordered Palermo cathedral be built on the site of the former mosque, it was completed within one year, for the same reasons.

The Normans had the money, knew the size and dimensions of what they wanted to build, and employed top-quality Arab master masons, engineers and carpenters whose skills had been honed to perfection and passed down through many generations.

When construction work first began on Notre Dame de Paris nearly a thousand years ago, it would have been the same. Rich with booty brought back from the Crusades and taxes from newly conquered lands in Andalusia, the Norman knights and their bishops would have assembled the best craftsmen money could buy, and as a result, the cathedral was built very fast by the standards of the day.

At work have been first-rate engineers, architects, and craftsmen, all operating at the top of their game, helping the restoration proceed at pace.

During their years spent waging war in the lands of Syria and Palestine, the Crusaders had been impressed by many styles of early Christian architecture. The main design feature they brought back, no doubt along with some of the top Syrian stonemasons to build them, was the twin towers flanking the monumental facade.

The most famous pilgrimage site they would have seen was St Simeon's Basilica, on a hilltop northwest of Aleppo, together with a string of churches built from beautifully crafted blocks of the local limestone, along the pilgrimage route from the port of ancient Antioch (modern Antakya in today's southeastern Turkey).

The purpose of these churches was to welcome the pilgrims and make them feel they had arrived somewhere significant, which is why the monumental facades also began to be carved with fine sculpture. Of these pilgrimage churches in Syria, one of the best preserved is known today as Qalb Lozeh, (Arabic 'The Heart of the Almond'), still standing high in a Druze village of the same name in northwest Syria.

Qalb Loze is a Druze village in northwestern Syria. The village is well-noted for its 5th-century church and other Byzantine-era ruins.

Its towers boast three storeys and its monumental west-facing entrance leads into a rectangular nave flanked by side aisles, exactly like a miniature Notre Dame de Paris. Not only that, but the superb quality of the Syrian stonemasonry, the result of centuries of experimentation where the local limestone served as the most abundant and durable building material, is still on view in the highly decorated south portal at Qalb Lozeh, as well as in a stone capital at the nearby St Simeon's basilica, where the mason has carved acanthus leaves that look as if they are blowing in the wind.

Notre Dame's south portal is similarly elaborate, while its nave has exactly such a capital, suggesting that a Syrian stonemason might well have worked at the original Notre Dame. He would have been one of the most skilled masons on site, recruited, like all the best craftsmen, to work on the top prestige project of the day. Plaster casts of several of the original 12th-century Notre Dame capitals were made in the 19th century during the Gothic Revival period and put on display in London's V&A Museum.

A building of the scale and complexity of Notre Dame, located on its own island in the River Seine in the heart of the French capital, represented the cutting-edge technology of its day, using stone vaulting techniques to cover the nave that would have been revolutionary, introduced via the Islamic world.

Qalb Lozeh (Heart of the Almond) still stands high in a Druze village in northwest Syria. It is an exact miniature of Notre Dame de Paris. 

At Spain's Cordoba and at Sicily's Palermo, the two Arab capitals on European soil that flourished till the 11th and 12th centuries, respectively and whose cultures were far more sophisticated and scientifically advanced than any Latin Christian rival, examples of rib vaulting already existed in Islamic buildings.

The Cordoba Mezquita still has three rib vaulted domes that date from the 10th century, using geometry so advanced that Spanish academics examining it as recently as 2015 pronounced it a masterpiece. It has not required structural repair in its entire thousand-year existence.

The Cordoba Umayyads had first brought their stonemasonry skills over from Syria and their capital at Damascus, after they were displaced and exiled by the Abbasids of Baghdad in 750. No European masons had such knowledge at that time, only learning it gradually from Arab masons from the 13th century onwards, around the same time that the names of architects and master masons, previously just 'anonymous', started to appear in Christian archives to take credit.

Even today, the number of Spanish words that still derive from Arabic in this field—like alarife for architect, albaňil for mason, atabá for brick, adoquín for paving stone, andamio for scaffolding—speaks to the Arab dominance of the medieval construction world.

Notre Dame's stone vaults, now rebuilt, were badly damaged when the iconic spire, covered in heavy lead, crashed through them during the fire, but the carving on the west facade was mercifully unscathed. It, too, bears testimony to delicate decorative designs derived from historic Syria and Palestine. Its pointed and trefoil arches were first seen in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine built in 690 and adopted by the Crusader Knights Templar as their symbol.

They minted it on their coins, mistaking it for the Temple of Solomon, while the earliest example of the ornamental rose window was found at the 8th-century Umayyad Palace of Hisham near Jericho, now in the Occupied West Bank.  

All these styles and techniques, copied from Middle Eastern models regarded as holy, both Christian and Islamic, spread across Europe via the churches along the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

They were then further developed in the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, spurred on by the intense rivalry between bishops, abbots and kings, all keen to be immortalised in this world and the next through their prestigious building legacies, often inserting themselves into the narrative for posterity, sometimes in stained glass windows like Abbot Suger at Saint-Denis, heralded as the 'birthplace' of Gothic architecture, or sometimes in statues on the cathedral facades, often in the company of saints and prophets.

Today, in the 21st-century restoration of Notre Dame, the same competitive spirit is on display. Eager to be part of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help restore such a world-famous monument, craftsmen from all over the world have come forward. Close to a thousand people are involved, some on-site, some in workshops scattered round Normandy, with at least 100 stonemasons, 150 carpenters and 200 roofers required.

Notre Dame's trefoil arches were first seen in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, adopted by the symbol of the Crusader Knights Templar.

In the documentaries that air regularly, following the course of the restoration, the focus is on the proud French architects and experts who are fronting the project. France, famously secular, is keen to paint the restoration of its most precious religious building as a triumph for the French national identity, yet the reality is that not all top craftsmen are French, or, for that matter, Christian.

Stories in US media outlets have emerged, for instance, of a small team of American carpenters, some of Jewish origin, whose expertise has been used to craft the oak roof timbers of the nave. They are from the French-based NGO Carpenters Without Borders, whose members are from 25 different nationalities.

Muslim carpenters from France and Bosnia also worked on the Notre Dame nave timbers, along with a Hindu from India and others skilled in traditional hand-craft methods, all employees of the Atelier de La Grande Oye, founded by a French Muslim.

How wonderful it would be, if it were to transpire that a small team of top Syrian craftsmen had likewise played a role in rebuilding this magnificent cathedral, bringing the wheel full circle.

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