Books: The high beast of Egypt

Jan Morris warms to a tall tale that turns an animal into an allegory

Zarafa

by Michael Allin

Review, pounds 12.99, 215pp

ON THE opening page of this endearing work there is a quotation from the poet James Dickie: "The hardest thing in the world is to make a mountain out of a molehill." He might have been talking about the book itself, because in Michael Allin has set himself the task of enlarging a charming little tale into an historic epitome.

The tale concerns an Ethiopian giraffe, named , which in 1827 was sent by Mohammed Ali, Ottoman satrap of Egypt, as a political sop to Charles X of France. She was the first giraffe ever to be seen alive on French soil, and the story of her journey from the upper reaches of the Blue Nile to the Jardins des Plantes in Paris becomes in Allin's hands a delightful kind of fable. It is hardly substantial enough to make a book, however, so like many another story-teller in a similar predicament, Allin has built around it a more elaborate structure.

went to France in token of the Franco-Egyptian empathy which had survived Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, and was to keep Egypt recognisably Francophile until our own times. In and out of his narrative, Allin traces the development of this entente, from the scholarly zeal of Napoleon's savants to the entrenched influence of the myriad French officials and adventurers who followed them. These were the defining decades of the discipline called Egyptology, which became an international obsession, and which led to the wholesale transfer of Egyptian relics to European museums.

They were also the decades in which the relationship between Egypt and Europe was hazily formulated, never to be entirely clarified from that day to this.

Both historical progressions are quaintly illustrated by 's story . She was a sort of Egyptian relic herself, given an extra fascination by the craze for pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphics. She was also a political pawn, because Mohammed Ali was anxious to keep the French out of the war between the Ottoman Empire and the rebellious Christians of Greece, a conflict which was engaging the passions of all Europe.

Allin weaves these twin threads skilfully, only occasionally falling into the techniques of literary padding, and only once, so far as I spotted, into error (the picture of Mohammed Ali allegedly being lectured by the British Consul in Alexandria, while a Royal Navy squadron lies threateningly in the harbour, in fact shows the Consul amiably introducing Lieutenant Thomas Waghorn RN, creator of the Overland Route to Suez, against a background of the Pasha's own fleet).

herself gives the book a serene cohesion. She seems to smile her way through it, sometimes centre-stage, sometimes only in allusion. She was a small giraffe, as giraffes go - 12 feet tall in her maturity - but getting her from Ethiopia to Paris was no joke. For 2000 miles she sailed down the Nile, Allin surmises, on lateen-sailed feluccas; over the Mediterranean with her head protruding through a hole in the deck of her merchantman; then on foot in 23 fatiguing stages - the 550 miles to Paris, when she was watched by wondering crowds all the way. The king was so excited that he proposed to go to receive her, until his stiff-necked Queen declared it inappropriate for a king to go and meet a giraffe.

Everybody loved her: those who simply gaped at her and those who looked after her (and sometimes went into almost unseemly raptures about her). In return she appeared to love humanity: the only thing she disliked doing in public was drinking her milk (25 gallons a day). In Paris she created such a sensation that women did their hair in giraffe style, men tied their ties a la girafe, the influenza of 1827 was called Giraffe Flu, and in three weeks 60,000 Parisians went to ooh and aah at her. She was alone in Paris for 15 years, but in 1839 a second female giraffe arrived at the Jardins des Plantes, and they lived together happily ever after.

So a story like a fairy-tale, with kings and ships and wise men and animals in it, has a fairy-tale ending. Today, stands stuffed and fragile in the natural history museum at La Rochelle, but she is still entrancingly alive - promoted to symbolism, too - in the pages of this happy book.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The 44-year-old insisted there had been “no fallings out” with the other members of the band
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style