In an ever-increasing demonstration of the needs of the “haves” and the “have nots”, French billionaires have pledged £605 million for the reconstruction of the famed Notre Dame cathedral.
While there is no doubt the cathedral is an iconic symbol of France and a true masterpiece of architecture that should indeed be restored to its former beauty, the astronomical and very public pledges are raising questions about charity and the differing way that the west treats places of historic value.
Is all charity equal?
Does charity have to come from a belief in the cause and from “a pure heart” for it to “matter”? Is the man who is a pauper who gives his last pound to the cause not of the greater heart than the billionaire who gives “pocket change” of millions? And is it really “charity” if in return for your generosity you receive the publicity of hundreds of headlines and the gratitude of your nation?
These are all worthy questions and perhaps we have the right to be sceptical about the motivations of billionaires when it comes to charity. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter once said “philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands are going to win,” the statement was enthusiastically endorsed by Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of billionaire wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, who acts as the Chief Brand Officer of WWE. They have a lot of scandals. They do a lot of charity.
Will Notre Dame still be a place of Christian faith and belief in the good of charity when it’s bought and paid for by Gucci? does it matter? Would it be different if the money came from the Catholic church with their own history of scandal and abuses? and can you truly feel comfortable, as a person of faith, praying in a building that cost more than it would to feed the poor?
Perhaps the question rests on what exactly is Notre Dame? is it a Christian place of worship or a work of art? is it a symbol of French majesty or is it a treasure of world history?
The situation with Notre Dame is very familiar to critics of Saudi Arabia and the methods and hypocrisy of the oil-rich Sheikhs. Sitting on tons of money, the sheikhs are happy to publically fund the building of ever increasingly lavish mosques, all while espousing their piety for doing so and denying their charity to others. The actions are often seen as derived from a position of politics and influence rather than piety.
In 2011, then Saudi King Abdullah began a $20 billion expansion to Islam’s most holy mosque, the magnificent Masjid Al-Haram aka the Great Mosque of Mecca where Muslims perform their Hajj. The expansion would see the main gate named for King Abdullah with officials saying they hoped the Islamic world would “appreciate these efforts” and duly “hold the king in high esteem”.
It’s a concept not too far removed from Catholic indulgences. An indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins”. During the middle ages, this concept has abused by the corrupt church and, for a fee, the church was happy to forgive any sin and accelerate passage to heaven.
Indulgences were originally intended to reward piety and good deeds, including the likes of charitable donations and building churches, hospitals, schools and infrastructure of the state. Increasingly pardoners would offer rewards such as salvation from damnation in return for huge sums of money and both forgive and even pre-forgive the most outrageous of sins, even murder.
Perhaps, like the sinners of old, the billionaires and sheikhs of the present believe their “sins” will be “forgiven” for their public benevolence, either in the physical world through positive manipulation of their public image or, if they believe in God, in the afterlife.
Yet nobody cries for the destroyed heritage of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, often due to the actions of the nations now pledging money to the reconstruction of Notre Dame. The sins are plain for all to see.
Syria has estimated the cost of reconstructing the country will be $400 billion, the world bank saying a more conservative $250 billion. One of the primary needs of the country after essential services is the kickstarting of tourism.
Syria views the rebuilding and redevelopment of its heritage sites as vital to the reconstruction of the country, hoping that religious tourism from Russia will hugely boost recovery efforts.
Speaking to reporters earlier today, Syrian Tourism Minister Rami Radwan Martini said that the development of religious and coastal tourism was vital.
“Work is in progress to attract tourists from Russia. The first area is religious tourism. Russians may be interested in such places as Maaloula, Saidnaya, Aleppo and Damascus… a large number of churches have been restored in the Old City of Homs. The biggest mosque in the region, Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, was completely destroyed. We have been able to restore it.”Rami Radwan Martini, Syrian Tourism Minister
Besides the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, other destroyed or damaged sites across Syria include the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Homs, the shrine of Prophet Jonas and Samarra’s al-Askari shrine. Meanwhile, approximately 100 key Yemeni sites have been damaged in a “cultural disaster” for the country, critics of the Saudi operation believing that Riyadh is deliberately ultural targets, including those from the ancient pre-Islamic Kingdom of Saba and the Himyarite Kingdom.
The danger to Syria’s archaeological treasures is widespread with many of the country’s most notable possessions already destroyed in shelling and crossfire between government forces and varying rebel groups throughout Syria. Others, such as the famed ruins at Palmyra, have undergone widespread looting and destruction. Speaking in 2015, UNESCO director Irina Bokova described the looting and destruction to be on “an industrial scale,” with The Smithsonian claiming that many archaeological sites are said to be so pockmarked by holes, the result of thousands of illicit excavations, that they resemble the surface of the moon.
An interactive map produced in 2016 by the National Museum Directorate showed that 758 archaeological sites in Syria had already suffered from some form of destruction. The destruction and damage included hundreds of buildings with thousands of artefacts having been looted and considered missing. Sites that have been damaged to varying degrees include neighbourhoodss of Old Damascus, Old Aleppo, the ancient city of Bosra, the Krakk des Chevaliers and the Citadel of Salah Ed-Din.
Are the archaeological sites of the Middle East of less value than Notre Dame? how can we quantify value? As with so much when we think of the Middle East, be it in terms of politics or war, is it a case of “out of sight, out of mind”? To the people of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, these structures are just as worthy as Notre Dame and tell just as great a story. This is their culture and legacy as much as Notre Dame is French culture and legacy. While there are ongoing efforts to rebuild, some funded by the likes of the UAE, it will not be enough and Macron style dreams of “in five years” are in nobodies expectations.
As the shock of the burning of Notre Dame subsides, awkward and important questions are being raised. As of yet, few answers are forthcoming.