As flames ripped through the Notre Dame Cathedral at the heart of the French capital, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, tweeted a reminder of the famed cathedral’s significance.“I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” Macron wrote.READ MORE: Notre Dame at risk of collapse as firefighters battle massive inferno
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Around the world, eyes are fixed to videos of the flames engulfing the spire and, slowly, toppling it. The cathedral is centuries old and hosts some 12 million visitors every year. That’s because it isn’t just a religious symbol, nor is it even just a French symbol, says Paul Cohen, an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, who is half French.To talk about the cathedral from a historian’s perspective is almost too difficult, Cohen says. “My historian hat is scrambling for distance and critical perspective,” he says, but the Parisian in him is winning out.“The sense of loss among Parisians and French people is enormous,” he said, “but we should also emphasize: I don’t think this necessarily means French people are feeling this as a religious loss.”That’s part of the magic of Notre Dame, Cohen says. What was built as a Catholic cathedral has evolved into so much more, although it is still an active church.WATCH: Paris sky filled with smoke as Notre Dame Cathedral burns

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