For centuries, the German city of Dresden was one of Europes architectural and artistic gems, its Florence on the Elbe.
The Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, a masterpiece of Protestant Baroque design built in the early 18th century, became the citys most notable landmark. Its distinctive bell-shaped sandstone dome soared 220 feet with no internal supports -- an architectural and engineering marvel that has been compared to Michelangelos Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.
But over two days in 1945, American and British bombers wiped out the Frauenkirche and most of Dresden in an unprecedented firestorm. Now, six decades later, the landmark is back in all its glory.
During the five years following Hitlers massive invasion of Poland, Dresden was mostly spared the bombing that ravaged much of Europe. But on Feb. 13, 1945, nearly 800 British aircraft dropped more than 2,600 tons of bombs on the city. Some 300 American Flying Fortress bombers followed the next morning.
Thirteen square miles of the citys historic center were destroyed, and at least 25,000 people were killed. Temperatures reached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and pilots could see the burning city from 100 miles away.
The Frauenkirches dome withstood the explosions. But the firestorms heat warped the sandstone walls and pillars. On Feb. 15, a day and a half after the bombing began, the building collapsed. Only the northwest staircase and the choir section remained standing.
Many questioned the decision to target Dresden, a city with more than 600,000 civilians. The Russians were approaching the Oder, the Americans were on the Rhine, Dresdener Ewald Kay, a retired engineer who now leads tours of the church, tells Smithsonian magazine. The war was almost decided.
American writer Kurt Vonnegut, a POW in Dresden during the bombing, used the event as the centerpiece of his 1969 antiwar novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
After peace returned in the summer of 1945, the East German government left the churchs rubble untouched as a reminder of the ravages of war. Since the early 1980s, thousands have gathered annually to light candles amid the stones on the anniversary of the destruction.
In recent years, German and British scholars have used newly opened East German archives to paint a more complicated picture of the bombings. Dresden was a fervently loyal Nazi stronghold, a key railroad center and a wartime production hub that transported Jewish and other slave laborers from all over Europe and sent many on to death camps.
In February 1990, just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a handful of hopeful Dresdeners kicked off a campaign to raise funds for the restoration of the cathedral with an open letter to the queen of England and the president of the United States.
The idea was controversial both for its daunting expense and the ruins strong symbolism. Yet the ambitious project captured the publics imagination, both in Germany and abroad.
Organizers eventually raised more than $100 million of the $160 million total cost from private donors in 26 countries.
Reconstruction began in 1993 with a painstaking archaeological excavation of the rubble. Thousands of stones were photographed, cataloged and sorted. Whenever possible, the original stones were reused.
The project took 12 years to complete and drew on the expertise of everyone from masons and carpenters to a local painter who carefully re-created the churchs ceiling frescoes.
Excavators discovered the 1738 altar mostly intact, and the cross that once sat atop the dome was pulled -- crushed and twisted but still recognizable -- from beneath tons of rock. Today it stands in the churchs nave, and the replacement, donated by British citizens, rises from the dome.
Consecrated on Oct. 30, 2005, the Frauenkirche saw 250,000 visitors in the first month and a half it was open.