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Zarafa was a gentle 19th-century giraffe, a simple animal whose life was dictated by the tumultuous times around her. From the African savanna where she was caught and tamed as an infant, Zarafa was shipped down the Nile--along with the meat of her mother and several hundred human slaves--to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. From there she sailed on to France, a gift from Muhammad Ali, the "Renaissance Barbarian" viceroy of Egypt, intended to distract King Charles X while Egyptian forces invaded Greece. As political ploy, it didn't work. But as ambassador from an exotic land, this odd animal captivated the French people for almost two decades, as she lived out her life as part of the royal menagerie.
Michael Allin intertwines natural history with a brutal chapter in the history of civilization, augmenting the clarity of both. This story of one docile animal contrasts sharply with those of the human profiteers, warmongers, and interlopers who ultimately decide her fate. But Zarafa's otherworldly charm also helps us to understand the intrigue that led Napoleon to bring not only his troops, but a small army of European intellectuals to study all aspects of Egyptian culture and history, in the invasion that sets up her story. --Lauran Cole Warner [via]