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Books: The high beast of Egypt

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

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.