"It's like God's. God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat... He just goes on trying other things."
- Pablo Picasso
The giraffe that would eventually become known as Zarafa (the name was not really used until years after her death) was probably born in the Sudan, not far from the Blue Nile. It was near there, at any rate, that she was captured by a band of Arab hunters, put on the back of a camel, and transported first to Khartoum, then to Alexandria. It wouldn't have been strange for her journey to have ended there in an Egyptian menagerie. Fate however - and more specifically the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, had other plans.
Egypt was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of the Mediterranean world. Included in that empire was Greece, which was currently struggling for its independence; supporting Greece or threatening to support her were various European powers, all eager to weaken the already fading Ottomans. In an attempt to persuade the French to end their support of the Greek rebels, the Viceroy decided to send them a gift. Centuries ago, the Portuguese tried to win the favor of the Pope by sending him a rhinoceros. The Egyptians decided to send the French a giraffe. They also sent one each to Britain and Austria.
After reaching Alexandria, Zarafa, accompanied by her Arab and Sudanese guardians and some milk cows, took a ship to Marseilles, in France. The ship wasn't exactly outfitted for its unique cargo; in a fit of inspiration, a hole was cut in the deck to allow her to poke her neck out. After a month at sea, the giraffe arrived in France on Halloween of 1826, and spent the winter in Marseilles. The question, then, was how to get her to Paris, 900 kilometers away.
In the end, the decision was made to walk it. Sea travel was deemed too dangerous, so on the 20th of May, 1827, the still young, still growing giraffe set out on foot. Joining her mixed-Arab-and-bovine entourage was the French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Concerned about the effects of the rain and cold on his charge, he ordered a yellow, two-part rain slicker, along with matching boots, for the giraffe. As she began her march to the capital, she passed through Avignon, Orange, Montelimar, and Vienne. For viritually every Frenchman and Frenchwoman she encountered, she was the first giraffe they'd seen, and the crowds turned out; 30,000 came to cheer her as she passed through Lyons.
Six weeks after beginning her March, Zarafa arrived in Paris, where she was presented to the King and deposited in the menagerie at the Jardin Des Plantes. Over 100,000 people came to see her, and she set off a style for all things giraffe, from giraffe-colored clothing to towering giraffe hairstyles for ladies. When she died about 18 years after her arrival in Paris (the British and Austrian giraffes survived for far shorter periods of time), her body was mounted; it can now be seen in the La Rochelle museum.
Even today, after millions of Americans and Europeans and Asians have seen giraffes, after several generations of giraffe captive-births, and after endless TV shows and nature documentaries, giraffes still retain their magic and their powers to dazzle us with their unique beauty. How much more extraordinary would it be to see one for the first time ever, without even have ever suspected beforehand that such an incredible creature was found in this world.
Zarafa mounted at the museum of natural history in La Rochelle, France