This is one of my comfort books that I've read several times over the years. For anyone who loves history and animals, Zarafa combines the two as perfectly as peanut butter and jelly. And giraffes have always had a special place in my heart. So how could I not be captivated by the story of France's first giraffe?
Zarafa, as author Michael Allin calls the unnamed giraffe in this fascinating true story, was chosen as a gift for King Charles X of France by the Viceroy of Egypt. The book charts her two year journey from the time when she was captured as a calf in Ethiopia and taken to Egypt via camel caravan. She sailed down the Nile and then crossed the Mediterranen standing in the ship's hold with her head sticking out of a hole cut specially for this purpose in the deck. Once this lovely stranger disembarked in Marseille she became an instant celebrity. And when she made her 600 mile walk to Paris thousands of onlookers lined the way just to catch a glimpse of this gentle giant docilely following the cows that provided her daily milk. She inspired fashions galore, everything from coiffures to crockery, wallpaper to pastries. A new strain of influenza was even named after her. For the next eighteen years she made her home in le Jardin des Plantes, the Paris zoo founded with animals saved from the mob when they attacked the royal menagerie at Versailles during the French Revolution, and people flocked to watch the gentle, docile Zarafa drink her milk and be groomed by her faithful Arab attendant, Atir, with a currycomb attached to a long stick. She was so gentle that even a child could have led her along by a string, and she was not shy of people, not even large crowds, and would even bend down to sniff and lick them.
As Michael Allin charts Zarafa's journey the reader encounters numerous colorful characters and fascinating nuggets of history, zoology, and science, along the way. And for fans of Egyptian history, there is a generous dollop of Egyptology too. Though some readers might complain all this information is over padding the giraffe's story, I enjoyed every moment of it. This slim little volume is just as enchanting as its subject, and I think, long before the reader reaches the last page, they also will have succumbed to Zarafa's charm.