Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stretching for Historical Curiosities A Giraffe's True Story from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stretching for Historical Curiosities A Giraffe's True Story from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris

Article excerpt

ZARAFA: A GIRAFFE'S TRUE STORY

By Michael Allin

Walker

215 pp., $22

This charming tale of a young giraffe's journey from Africa to Paris offers cultural history from a refreshingly oblique angle. "Zarafa" also traces the author's enthrallment with a dream that began "lives ago," he tells us. It was inspired by a poem's reference to Paris's Jardin des Plantes, which houses the world's first urban zoo, founded in 1793.

Years before visiting the Jardin, Michael Allin became entranced with it as a legacy of Enlightenment rationalism bent on assembling the world's curiosities in menageries and collections. Both before and after the French Revolution, the savants of Europe were reaching out to previously unknown climes to taxonomize and study the wider world.

A tiny aside in the history of ideas concerns the odyssey of Zarafa (from the Arabic for "charming" or "lovely one"). Years after his initial entrancement with the Paris zoo, Allin stumbled on mention of France's first giraffe in The New Yorker magazine and set out, finally, in the fall of 1996, to trace Zarafa's intercontinental route in 1826-27. Along the way, he makes lively side excursions into Egyptology, archaeology, zoology, and the history of the Middle East.

The history begins with Napoleon's invasion at Alexandria in 1798 as part of a scheme to capture India from the British. The venture ended as a fiasco, but French interest in Egypt continued, spurred by the corps des savants that accompanied the Grand Army of the Orient.

After Muhammad Ali came to power in 1805, he courted French favor in an effort to modernize Egypt. One overture to Paris was his gift of Zarafa to King Charles X. Much ado accompanied her final overland passage in France.

Along the way we learn the story of Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul in

The Spotted Tale of a Giraffe's First Trip to Paris

Cairo and a trader in African exotica, and tienne Geoffroy Saint- Hilaire, who founded the Paris zoo "with animals saved from the {revolutionary} mobs that had attacked the royal menagerie at Versailles. …

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