Notre Dame: Paris landmark and soul of the French nation

Paris was struck in its very heart on Monday as flames devoured the roof of Notre-Dame, the medieval cathedral made famous by Victor Hugo, its two massive towers flanked with gargoyles instantly recognisable even by people who have never visited the city.

One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture

Notre Dame is a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts millions of tourists every year. 

The iconic cathedral has been deeply enmeshed in Paris' history since construction began at the end of the 12th century -- historians generally ascribe the date 1163 -- and lasted more than two centuries to 1345.

It is also considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture.

(Photograph:AFP)

Part of French revolution

It was in Notre-Dame that Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France.

During the 18th century French Revolution it was hit by many acts of vandalism, targeted as a Catholic symbol -- its spire was dismantled, treasures plundered and the statues at its entrance doors destroyed.

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Massive tenor bell announce liberation from Nazi

Its massive tenor bell announced the liberation of the city from Nazi control on August 24, 1944, ending the dark years under German rule in World War II.

Twenty-six years later it hosted the funeral of Charles de Gaulle, a rare honour for the leader who steered France's resistance during the war.

For French Catholics it has particular resonance, as the resting place of the crown of thorns believed to have been placed on Jesus' head before his crucifixion.

(Photograph:AFP)

Cultural lodestone

In 1831, Hugo brought the cathedral alive with "Notre-Dame de Paris", giving it a personality on par with the novel's heroes, the hunchback Quasimodo and the gypsy beauty Esmeralda.

At a time when the church was facing the prospect of demolition because of its shocking state of disrepair, his novel worked as a rallying cry to action for the nation, which began efforts to safeguard the structure.

In modern times the church became a lodestone of Western culture thanks in large part to its starring role in several movies, not least the "Hunchback of Notre-Dame" of 1956.

The film saw Anthony Quinn bring to life a Quasimodo fascinated by the ravishing Esmeralda played by Italian bombshell Gina Lollobrigida.

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Changed with each passing era

But Notre-Dame has not remained unchanged since its creation, with each era seeming to bring its own touch to the structure.

A spire originally installed toward the year 1250 was taken down five centuries later.

But at the end of the 19th century the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, a tireless defender of France's medieval monuments, rebuilt the spire, sparking a chorus of criticism from residents and tourists alike.

(Photograph:Reuters)

Over 800 years old structure

The spire had disappeared from most people's memories when it emerged once again from Notre Dame's roof in 1860.

Experts say that the framework of oak beams, invisible to visitors, was a gem of medieval architecture, with some parts of the structure more than 800 years old.

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Tourist hot-spot

Around 12 to 14 million people visit the cathedral every year, an average of more than 30,000 per day. 

A favourite for tourists, Notre Dame also attracts many couples hoping to tie the knot under its famed Gothic arches. 

Five religious services are held there every day and seven on Sundays. In total more than 2,000 take place every year.

(Photograph:Reuters)

Terror target

In recent years Notre Dame has also been the site of tragedy. Its bells rang the day after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in 2015 to honour the victims.

A year later top civil and religious officials gathered at the cathedral for a mass in honour of Jacques Hamel, the French priest who had his throat slit by Islamists in the diocese of Rouen, a northern city.

In September 2016 a car packed with gas canisters was discovered near the cathedral. Three women believed to have been spurred by the Islamic State group were subsequently charged with terror offences.

And in June 2017 an Algerian shouting "This is for Syria" tried to attack a policeman with a hammer outside Notre Dame but was shot and wounded. 

(Photograph:AFP)