Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769 – 1849) was an Albanian commander in the Ottoman army, who became Wāli (pasha), and self-declared Khedive of Egypt and Sudan. Though not a modern nationalist, he is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt because of the dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres that he instituted. He also ruled Levantine territories outside Egypt.
The Muhammad’s gift was politically motivated. While he was expanding his authority into Africa, the Ottoman Empire was being challenged by ethnic rebellions in its European territories. The rebellion in the Greek provinces of the Ottoman Empire began in 1821. The Ottoman army proved ineffectual in its attempts to suppress the revolt, so Sultan Mahmud II offered Muhammad Ali the island of Crete in exchange for his support in putting down the revolt. Muhammed Ali sent his army to Greece under command of his son, Ibrahim Pasha, but England, France, and Russia intervened to protect the Greeks.
Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul-general in Egypt, persuaded the Pasha that an extraordinary present would encourage the King of France to stop supporting the Greeks. Muhammad thought to send as gifts exotic animals and especially one of the most impressive animals on the African continent, a giraffe. In 1826, a young twelve-foot female giraffe was captured by Arab hunters in Sudan and taken to Khartoum on the back of a camel, from where she was transported by boat down the Nile to Alexandria.
From Alexandria began her journey by ship to Europe standing in the hold, her long neck and head protruding through a hole cut in the deck. She was assisted by native keepers from Sudan, while three cows accompanied her on her voyage to supply her daily milk. After a voyage of 32 days, she arrived in Marseilles on 31 October 1826.
After overwintering in Marseille, to rest and acclimatize to her new surroundings, fearing the dangers of transporting her to Paris around the Iberian peninsula and up the Atlantic coast of France, it was decided that the next leg of her journey to Paris would be on foot. After lengthy preparations, the cavalcade set out on 20 May 1827. Zarafa was already 15 cm taller than when she arrived in Marseilles.At every step of her 500 mile route, crowds poured out to witness this marvel from Africa. She was a spectacle in each town she passed through, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Orange, Vienne. When she arrived in Lyon on 6 June, 30,000 people gathered to see and to admire her. The walk to Paris took 41 days and during her trip she was called The Beautiful Animal of the King (le bel animal du roi). Zarafa’s arrival in Paris caused a delirium to Parisians. Over 100,000 people came to see her, approximately an eighth of the population of Paris at the time. She was presented to the King of France at the chateau of Saint-Cloud in Paris on 9 July 1827, and took up residence in the Jardin des Plantes, where it was seen by over 600,000 visitors in the first six months alone.
Zarafa became the darling of the nation. Honoré de Balzac wrote a story about her; Gustave Flaubert (then a young child) travelled from Rouen to Paris to see her. Famous painters depicted Zarafa in their paintings. As expected a “giraffemania” swept the country. Women began wearing very tall hairstyles à la girafe and clothing with giraffe spots. Manufacturers raced to produce wares to feed the insatiable public appetite for giraffe-themed goods, producing her image on everything from fabric, á la giraffe furniture, wallpaper, porcelain. Even soap were decorated with a giraffe pattern ! The potteries were no less responsive to changes in taste, creating and adapting their designs to capitalize on prevailing market demand. So many ceramics were painted with giraffe images. Earthenware giraffe plates were very popular after the arrival of Zarafa. This behavior of the French people, although today it seems excessive, is explainable. It was the amazing feeling to see something for the very first time. Zarafa was the first giraffe ever seen in France and one of the first three giraffes to be seen in Europe for over three centuries, since the Medici giraffe was sent to Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence in 1486. Standing nearly 4 m high, her image opened an exotic window in the eyes of enthusiastic spectators on the early nineteenth century. It was a symbol of another world, a representative of a different culture, a forerunner of a completely different nature.
But the gifts of Pasha were not enough for the disengagement of England and France from the Greek Revolution. The French, who loved so much Zarafa, didn’t show the same concern for the donor. Muhammad Ali and his intentions were quickly forgotten as France fell in love with its “beautiful stranger”. On 20 October 1827 at the Navarino Bay, the entire Egyptian navy was sunk by the European Allied fleet, under the command of Admiral Edward Codrington. With its fleet essentially destroyed, Egypt had no way to support its forces in Greece and was forced to withdraw. Ultimately the campaign cost Muhammad Ali his navy and had not yielded any tangible gains.
As political ploy, it didn’t work. But as ambassador from an exotic land, this odd animal captivated the French people for many years, as she lived out her life as part of the royal menagerie. Although her arrival did not keep the French out of Ali’s war, she became an instant celebrity in Paris and over the next years she fascinated all of Europe. But as the years went by she received fewer visitors after her fall from fashion, living in near solitude, lonely and unloved, until her death in 1845. Her corpse was stuffed and displayed in the foyer of the Jardin des Plantes for many years, before being moved to the museum at La Rochelle, where it remains.
This is the short story of Zarafa, a giraffe who was adored by a nation and brought two very different worlds together. Her strange and wonderful journey linked Africa and Europe in mutual discovery and wove a captivating tale of nations and nature. But beyond the fairy tale, a complex web of politics, culture, religion, and greed was revealead, that fueled the phenomenon of the giraffe called “Zarafa”.