Books: In brief

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The Independent Culture
Zarafa by Michael Allin, Headline pounds 12.99. In 1826, Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, hoping to forestall European intervention in his war against the Greeks, ordered that a giraffe be sent to King Charles X of France. A young female giraffe was captured and tamed in Sudan, shipped 3,500 miles down the Nile and across the Mediterranean. After wintering in Marseilles, she walked to Paris at two miles an hour, dressed in a "mantle of taffeta" against the weather. The curious cavalcade consisted of two Arab handlers, an interpreter, two antelope and a herd of cows to provide the 25 gallons of milk the giraffe drank every day. Gendarmes gave protection from the crowds who thronged to see her along the route, enchanted by the "beautiful stranger", as one newspaper called her.

The entourage was led by the illustrious naturalist Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire. At 21 he had been the youngest of the founding Professors of the National Museum of Natural History, at the Jardin des Plantes. He founded the Paris municipal zoo there in 1792, with a lion and a rhino saved from the revolutionary mobs who massacred the menagerie of the King at Versailles. As the police "extended democracy even to beasts" by confiscating private menageries, so the zoo grew.

Allin paints a romantic picture of Saint-Hilaire. Before he was 30 he had been among the "heroic" corps des savants that accompanied Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1798, so important in unlocking Egypt's ancient secrets. And at the age of 55, suffering from gout and rheumatism, the grand old man of science was wandering through French sunflower fields with a giraffe and a growing cargo of genetic monstrosities donated by "friends of science" along the way. He was fascinated by Zarafa: "She is as debonaire as she is intelligent," he wrote.

Zarafa's audience with the King was delayed by Queen Marie Therese, who insisted it would not be protocol for him to rush to greet a gift from a lesser monarch. So the giraffe was forced to trudge 18 miles across Paris to the court at Saint Cloud. The King's reaction is not recorded, but the giraffe became the rage of Paris. Children ate gingerbread giraffes, women wore their hair a la Girafe and all manner of garish spotted merchandise was produced. More than 40,000 people flocked to see Zarafa during the summer of 1827. When she died in 1845 she was stuffed and eventually lent to other museums in France. Allin has tracked her down by her markings to a museum in La Rochelle - where she is known as "Giraffe from Sennar".

This book brings into focus the collision of two worlds locked in mutual fascination: Enlightenment France and nascent modern Egypt. Napoleon becomes the bridge between two cultures, throwing banquets in Cairo where each guest is given companion volumes of the Koran and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man.

Occasionally Allin treats facts superficially and he leaves out the brutality of colonial carve-ups and any sense of the driving forces behind events. Instead, he offers a wonderfully entertaining dramatisation of what he sees as the noble progression of France and Egypt from darkness into light. Zarafa is a vivid cabinet of curiosities, full of intriguing oddities.

Tristan Quinn