Through a hole in the wall
Of the Jardin des Plantes
We come to go round
The animals for the last time...
— James Dickey, "Goodbye to Serpents"
LIVES AGO, those lines were the first place I ever saw the words Jardin des Plantes. "Goodbye to Serpents" is a poem about an American father and son whose final visit to the old Paris zoo, located in the park that is le Jardin des Plantes, becomes their farewell to Europe.
I loved the poem for its snakes in my imagined paradise of Paris, and for the lucky little son in it, and for its searching irony that was quintessential Jim Dickey: the irony that the poet's disconnection with what he is seeing dogs him and drives him to find his own relationship with it. "The hardest thing in the world," Jim was always saying, "is to make a mountain out of a molehill."
Ever since first reading "Goodbye to Serpents," I have sought out any mention of le Jardin des Plantes. As a university student working first in the college library, then in a bookstore, I developed a ritual of checking for le Jardin, along with my handful of other obsessions, in every book that had an index. Long before I ever saw it, I knew that the oldest tree in Paris has grown in le Jardin since it was founded in 1635; and that la Rotonde is the menagerie's oldest and most beautiful building, designed to replicate the cross of the Napoleonic Legion of Honor; and that the menagerie, which is the world's oldest municipal zoo, was started with animals rescued from the mobs of the French Revolution.
It took me years to get to Paris. My first morning finally there in 1977, I took my wife to see le Jardin des Plantes and say hello to the serpents. It was perfect spring, sunny and warm. The intricate gardens were full of flowers. The endless allées of plane trees and horse chestnuts were magnificent with their new leaves. But the old art nouveau serpentarium was shabby and sad. The snakes were geriatric. My pilgrimage was a disappointment. Until a zookeeper ran through, yelling, "On ferme! On ferme! Closing!" and herded the few of us outside and around to a big window looking into the enclosure of the python.
The python was as thick around as my thigh and had climbed vertically most of its fifteen feet up an inside edge of the window. Its head was up out of sight, and we did not realize at first that it was a snake because its body was so big and gleaming dark like a wet tree. A three-or four-inch slit in the snake, perfectly positioned for spectating, widened, and out of it we watched eggs slowly appear, one by one, as asymmetrical and irregular as stones, no two alike.
At the inside door of the python's enclosure, two khaki-uniformed zookeepers and a blond woman in a white laboratory smock over a yellow dress were beside themselves with excitement. I have no idea how much time went by; but when the eggs stopped coming, we had counted seventeen.
Then, after an animated consultation, the two very nervous keepers climbed through the door into the enclosure, one with a gunnysack that he held up at full arm's length around the python's head, struggling to hold it as the gigantic snake began to writhe, while the other man handed the eggs out to the blond woman, who gathered them in her smock like a farmer's wife in her apron. When she had them all in her standing lap, the egg-gathering keeper exited and got ready to close the glass door of the enclosure as fast as he could after the man with the gunnysack let it drop and leaped away from the snake.
The two men and the woman disappeared until they emerged hurrying in a tight group, their six hands all carrying her smock full of eggs, out of the serpentarium and across the gravel and into another building.
The snake slithered down onto the floor, huge-headed and even more awesome in its horizontal length as it searched around and around the cage.
* * *
AFTER I WAS thus granted experiential ownership of le Jardin des Plantes, my obsession with it became proprietary. And one day, after twenty-five years of checking indexes, I found an astonishing paragraph in the New Yorker about a giraffe that had arrived at le Jardin in 1827 — astonishing because this first giraffe ever seen in France, after sailing from Egypt, had walked all the way from Marseille to Paris.
It was a simple story, or so I thought at first, based upon the innocently exotic and fairy-tale image of a giraffe — a royal gift from Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, to King Charles X of France — strolling through the glorious French countryside in spring.
Researching the giraffe over the next decade, I found her story told and retold — by scientists, journalists, historians, novelists and authors of childrens' books, cartoonists and painters — accruing an amazement of details that were hopelessly unreliable. Intending to treat it as fiction, though, I felt no need to seek the truth. The giraffe's chroniclers, myself included, had fallen in love with her story, myths and all; and as by a pharaoh's curse on tomb robbers, we were spellbound to convey wonder instead of facts.
Giraffe, girafe, giraffa (English, French, Italian) — all derive from the Arabic zerafa, a phonetic variant of zarafa, which means "charming" or "lovely one." I named the giraffe Zarafa and imagined her wading through a field of sunflowers somewhere in France. But as I learned more about the extraordinary achievement of her arrival in Paris, the scattered facts became too impressive to fictionalize. And as the humans involved with the giraffe's journey emerged in my research as real-life figures, the fairy tale kept backing up into ever more fascinating history.
France's first giraffe was the brainchild in 1824 of Bernardino Drovetti, French consul general in Egypt and indispensable private adviser to Muhammad Ali. The viceroy was about to become unpopular in Europe for his war against the Greeks, and Drovetti's suggested gift of a giraffe was intended to befriend Charles X, who had become the king of France that year.
Drovetti and the viceroy were both expatriate adventurers who had come to Egypt at the turn of the nineteenth century: Drovetti was a young Italian soldier turned French bureaucrat; Muhammad Ali was an Albanian mercenary in the Ottoman Turkish army. Both men were, like the giraffe, charming and deadly in their contradictions.
Muhammad Ali sent his son and thousands of other Arabs to be educated in Europe, while financing his impressive modernization of Egypt with the African slave trade and confiscatory taxation of his subjects. Drovetti, officially a diplomat, made a fortune trafficking in exotic animals, Egyptian antiquities, mummies by the pound, and whatever else his wealthy European clients desired.
Drovetti was the classic entrepreneurial middleman, an expert at turning royal gratitude to his own financial advantage. His long relationship with the viceroy made him the most powerful European in Egypt. As the first wholesale tomb robber of modern Egyptology, Drovetti was ingratiating to his patrons and dangerous to his competitors. His career in Egypt spanned almost thirty years, and his archaeological removals became the great museum collections now in Turin and Paris and Berlin.
Zarafa's walk from Marseille to Paris turned out to be but the finale to a journey she had begun 4,000 miles and two years before in central Africa. Captured as a calf in the Ethiopian highlands by Arab hunters, she had been packed on a camel to Sennar and shipped down the Blue Nile to be raised in Khartoum. From Khartoum she had traveled the harrowing slave trail down the entire length of the Nile, nearly 2,000 miles to Cairo and Alexandria — none of the various versions agreed as to how — before sailing across the Mediterranean.
Zarafa's survival was ensured by fear of the viceroy's wrath and by Drovetti's experience in shipping African animals to Europe. In Alexandria, Drovetti put his Arab groom, Hassan, in charge of her journey to Paris and sent along his Sudanese servant, Atir, to assist. They were three weeks on the Mediterranean, another week waiting off Marseille — thirty-two days in all — during which the giraffe rode standing among the other animals in the hold with her long neck and head protruding through a hole cut in the deck.
While bureaucrats in Marseille and Paris squabbled over who was responsible for the giraffe's expenses, the prefect of Marseille doted on her, constructing a stable especially for her on the grounds of his mansion and bringing her there through the city late at night to avoid the crowds. Hassan and Atir wintered in the stable with her, training her to follow milk cows on fair-weather constitutionals. These lengthening walks out into the countryside around Marseille eventually convinced the prefect and Hassan that the giraffe could walk to Paris in short daily treks.
The procession set out on May 20, 1827, led by no less than étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, one of the foremost scientists of his time. In 1793, when the French Revolution had created the National Museum of Natural History, Saint-Hilaire, at twenty-one, had been the youngest of its twelve founding professors. It was Saint-Hilaire who had started the Paris zoo with animals saved from the mobs that had attacked the royal menagerie at Versailles. Before he was thirty, he had been among the heroic corps des savants that accompanied Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1798 and was stranded there with the army for three years.
Now fifty-five and suffering from gout and rheumatism, Saint-Hilaire was a living legend, a grand and improbable eminence to make this journey with the giraffe on foot. In Marseille he hired an Arab urchin named Youssef, the bilingual son of Egyptian refugees, to serve as his aide and translator with Hassan and Atir.
Marseille to Paris in May and June of 1827 was a 550-mile parade, during which the giraffe became such a never-seen-before attraction that crowds rioted around her. People came out of their fields and vineyards and distant villages to marvel at this living mythological combination of creatures — a gentle and mysterious sort of horned camel whose hump had been straightened by stretching its neck, with legs as tall as a man and the cloven hoofs of a cow, and markings like a leopard or a maze of lightning, and that startling blue-black snake of a twenty-inch tongue. During the journey, Saint-Hilaire's health deteriorated, and officials in Paris ignored his concern about the increasing crowds. By the time the convoy reached Lyon, the giraffe was so famous that 30,000 people turned out to see her. In Paris she was paraded through the city and presented to the king.
This conclusion to Zarafa's travels was only the beginning of the sensation she became in Paris, where glamorous women imitated her with their hair styled high, à la Girafe, and in the streets and salons, men wore fashionably giraffique hats and ties. Now remembered as a beautiful but vague legend, France's first living giraffe was a national icon, the envy of Europe, the subject of songs and poems, vaudeville skits and political allegories, the namesake of public squares and streets and inns and even a form of influenza.
Atir remained in Paris with Zarafa, becoming renowned as the Arab who lived with the giraffe in her enclosure at le Jardin des Plantes. Two ladders took him up to a mezzanine, where he slept within scratching reach of her head. Grooming her was his daily public performance. By night, he was also famous as a neighborhood ladies' man.
* * *
IN THE FALL OF 1996, I set out to retrace Zarafa's journey. On Thanksgiving Day, I was in Sennar on the Blue Nile. Below the town the river bends, widening to the north, but there is nothing left of the landing where Zarafa and so many hundreds of thousands of human captives embarked for Khartoum. The French explorer Frédéric Cailliaud saw giraffes at Sennar in 1821. Arab slavers and hunters soon depopulated them, so that only three years later, Zarafa was captured 200 miles away. As I followed the Blue Nile from Sennar to Khartoum and on down the Nile into Egypt, the seasonal logic of the river made it clear to me that Zarafa would have sailed easily all the way to Alexandria.
In Africa there are no written records of Zarafa until Cairo. These were forgotten until 1938, when the archives of Muhammad Ali were discovered in the snake-infested cellars beneath his tomb at the Citadel. Every official word he had spoken during his reign of more than forty years had been transcribed into Arabic and saved. King Farouk, Egypt's last ruling descendant of Muhammad Ali, ordered an inventory that year of these documents, among which were found the viceroy's orders regarding "the giraffe from Sennar." During the inventory, these orders were not translated from Arabic; they were only described to a European journalist, who, with great love and inaccuracy, ultimately reminded France of the story of its first giraffe.
From Sennar to Khartoum and down the Nile to Cairo and Alexandria and across the Mediterranean, this journalist's invaluable inaccuracies led me at last to treasure buried in the archives of Marseille — a dusty, ribbon-tied cache of 170-year-old official and unofficial letters, ministerial reports and memos, and detailed day-to-day invoices of the giraffe's winter in Marseille and subsequent spring journey to Paris.
This miraculous find revealed firsthand accounts of that part of her story, while old newspapers in Lyon provided further eyewitness reports of the tumult that greeted "the beautiful Egyptian" and her exotic Arab handlers. The same newspapers were shrill with anti-Islamic news of Muhammad Ali's war on the Greeks. Zarafa came to life with the times she lived in, and her story elaborated into a kaleidoscope of historical connections.
The giraffe was a royal gift intended to link Egypt and France. She was an emissary from another world whose journey, like the Nile itself, threaded distant and unimaginably disparate places. But the cast of characters along her way, and the history they gather and bring into focus around her, are as astonishing as her walk to Paris. Drovetti is Egyptology, which began with Napoleon's invasion in 1798; that, in turn, set the stage for Muhammad Ali, the renaissance barbarian whose enamored admiration for the French not only modernized Egypt but unlocked its ancient past. From beginning to end, and on every level, Zarafa's story is one of incongruous encounters — as complicated as the African slave trade meeting the European Enlightenment, and as deceptively simple as the White Nile and the Blue Nile contending into the Nile.
Excerpted from Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story Copyright © 1998 by Michael Allin.