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Zarafā Encounters with the Giraffe, from Paris to the Medieval Islamic World

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Chapter Summary

On a cold Christmas Day in Paris in 2004, the author decided to go and visit the Jardin des Plantes. Having recently read Michael Allin’s Zarafa, the entertaining account of how a giraffe, christened Zarafa by Allin, traveled from Sennar (a town on the White Nile ca. 150 miles south of Khartum) to Paris in 1827, the author wanted to see the place where the animal was housed until its death in 1845. This chapter gives an overview without any claim at exhaustiveness of the role that the giraffe played in medieval Arabic culture: how it was appreciated, how it was described in natural history works and adab literature in general, and the strange theories that circulated about its procreation. Apart from supplementing what is said about the giraffe in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, this may also help us to evaluate al-Ṣaffār’s account of the giraffe.

Keywords: adab literature; giraffe; Jardin des Plantes; medieval Arabic culture; Michael Allin; Zarafa



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