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Cinderella of the Nile

By Meghan Sullivan

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the past and its relation to the present. The idea that through stories and art we are connected to people living thousands of years ago is incredible. It was this interest which inspired me to study Classics at university. While reading ancient myths and tales, or studying art, what struck me the most was not how different we are to our ancient ancestors, but how similar we are. The same ideas of love, hope, bravery, fear, and kindness appear again and again.

Perhaps that’s why I was so excited to see Iranian illustrator Marjan Vafaeian’s illustrations, inspired by Egyptian art, in Cinderella of the Nile. 

Many people may not know that the oldest known version of the Cinderella story actually comes from Egypt. It is this version of the tale, involving a Greek girl who is sold into slavery, which is lovingly retold by Beverley Naidoo.  Marjan Vafaeian brings the story alive with her vibrant illustrations which have captured the spirit of Egyptian art.

Wall Painting of Tutankhamun Accompanied by Anubis and Nephthys

If you think of Egyptian art, the first thing that comes to mind might be the strange use of perspective. The artist uses a perspective which allows the person looking at the painting, or illustration, to see the front of the body, while the head and face are turned to the side. This perspective is also seen in all of  Marjan’s illustrations for Cinderella of the Nile. You’ll notice that none of the characters in the illustrations are looking directly at the viewer, and yet their bodies still face forwards.

A spread from Cinderella of the Nile
A hunting scene from the tomb of Nebamun showing a cat

Another element from Egyptian art which Marjan used was hierarchical perspective. Basically, the figures which appear biggest in the images are the ones who the are most important. So, gods, Pharaohs, or in this case Cinderella herself, are bigger while the secondary characters all appear smaller depending on how important they are. It’s really interesting that slaves would be considered less important, so they would be depicted as smaller than anyone else, but Cinderella (Rhodopis) is a slave and she is also the largest character there. Perhaps Marjan is telling us that Rhodopis’s kindness and bravery are far more important than her status.

 

In all of Marjan’s illustrations you can see how inspired she was by Egyptian art. From the clambering cat, to the roaring waves and winding river, the illustrations find their echoes in the past. Even Rhodopis’ sapphire eyes which are commented on at the beginning of Cinderella of the Nile are inspired by Egyptian spiritual belief; The Eye of Horus was seen as a symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. It is fitting that at the start of the book we notice Rhodopis’ beautiful eyes, and by the end of the story she is married to the Pharaoh.  With these little details Marjan brings the past alive and into the present, while preserving the magic of ancient Egypt.

A spread from Cinderella of the Nile – can you spot the cat?

You don’t have to be a classicist to enjoy the echoes of ancient culture behind Cinderella of the Nile. For parents and teachers this book could be a rich resource for children. It opens up discussions about the ways the Egyptians lived, while bringing to life, lessons about Egyptian art and culture.

Meghan Sullivan is Classics graduate who completed her MA at UCL. 

  • Check out these exciting children’s activities from Edinburgh Book Festival
  • Listen to a podcast exploring the truth about fairy tales
  • Read a wonderful review of Cinderella of the Nile by The Telegraph

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