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
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam