Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris
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In October 1826, a ship arrived at Marseille carrying the first giraffe ever seen in France. A royal offering from Muhammad Ali, Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, to King Charles X, she had already traveled 2,000 miles down the Nile to Alexandria, from where she had sailed across the Mediterranean standing in the hold, her long neck and head protruding through a hole cut in the deck. In the spring of 1827, after wintering in Marseille, she was carefully walked 550 miles to Paris to the delight of thousands of onlookers.
The viceroy's tribute was politically motivated: He commanded the Turkish forces then fighting the Greeks in their war of independence, and hoped his gift would persuade the French not to intervene against him. But the viceroy and his intentions were quickly forgotten as France fell in love with its "beautiful stranger."
Zarafa chronicles the full story of this remarkable animal, revealing a kaleidoscope of history, science, and culture that opens an exotic window on the early nineteenth century. From the Enlightenment's blossoming fascination with science to Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Egypt in 1798–from the eminent French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire to Bernardino Drovetti, French consul general in Egypt and tomb robber extraordinaire–the era was full of memorable events and characters. Michael Allin deftly weaves them into the story with an appreciation for detail and an uncommon affection.
The giraffe's strange and wonderful journey linked Africa and Europe in mutual discovery. Although her arrival did not keep the French out of Ali's war, she became an instant celebrity in Paris and over the next eighteen years she fascinated all of Europe. Through Michael Allin's narrative skill, Zarafa stirs the imagination as it provides a new context for the history of a distant age.
Zarafa's height at maturity, — feet or full though, was just over twelve small even for a Masai — beguilingly miniature and manageable. As property of the despotic viceroy, these two young Their giraffes own kept them were worth the lives of their keepers. hunger, and gentling hands at mortal risk, on camel's cows alive at first milk. Later, provided the twenty- five gallons each consume every This places, toum grew — of to day. bonding with humans earlv in, all
need in a P.S. that typifies the his for own man's consci- entious enthusiasm: You can assure the administrators of the zoo of the special cares that I tion of this precious sured myself of a good or site am giving to the preserva- animal; I have already asthat is fairly green and has am even free exposure to the midday; I building there a vast shed of planks that we will heat by means of straw matting against the severity of the season. This construction expenses and is
Plantes, le it Jardin du Roi. became part of Renamed a le Jar- new museum intended as an Enlightenment institution of research — "one Europe" — Georges-Louis and teaching of of the as a director of le Jardin, Hilaire held the title scientific lighthouses Leclerc Buffon, had wished. Young Saint- of "Chairman of the Depart- MICHAEL ALLIN 128 ment of Quadrupeds, Cetaceans, Fish." His zoology and was primarily collecting and dis- — formaldehyde and bones secting,
during and saved. King Farouk, Egypt's ing descendant of when were discovered the snake-infested cellars beneath his Citadel. 1938, until gi- from Sennar/' During the inventory, these or- ders were not translated from Arabic; they were only described to a European journalist, who, with great love and inaccuracy, ultimately reminded France of the story of its first giraffe. From Sennar to Khartoum and down the Nile to Cairo and Alexandria and across the Mediterranean, this
out to greet this from a lesser En gift monarch. route from Lyon, Saint- Hilaire received no response at all to his request to detour and rest the giraffe at Fontainebleau. The convoy pushed on through Burgundy, up the ancient Roman their right and, road between the Saone on on their the rolling foothills left, stitched with vineyards initiated by Caesar's legionnaires the who first villages retired here after conquering Gaul in century- a.d. — eighty straight miles