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Q: Map making ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   5 Comments )
Subject: Map making
Category: Science > Instruments and Methods
Asked by: victor_s-ga
List Price: $2.00
Posted: 09 Mar 2005 02:05 PST
Expires: 08 Apr 2005 03:05 PDT
Question ID: 487527
¿Why is the north always shown on the upside of the maps and not the
south or the east, for example?
Subject: Re: Map making
Answered By: politicalguru-ga on 09 Mar 2005 07:00 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Dear Victor, 

Interesting question. As Myoarin has mentioned, it is a cultural
convention. Ancient maps don't necessarily place the north on top. In
the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, I saw an Arab map from the Middle Ages,
whereas North Africa was on top, and Europe on the bottom.

"Peter Whitfield, "The Image of the World" (San Francisco: Pomegranate
Art books, 1994.  He has some interesting ideas "why things changed"
North apparently becaome the preferred direction during the
Renaissance in the fifteenth centuray, because: (1) the world map had
to be widened withe the discoveries in the New World, (2) thus
projection became of increasing importance, and (3) the first
republication of Ptolemy in the west with reconstructions of his maps.
In 1459 the world map of Father Mauro (p 33) had S at the top. In 1457
a Genoese World Map showed the influence of Ptolemy, twice the E-W
direction than N-S and had N at top (p. 41)" (SOURCE: Geograph, 1997,

The Upside Down Map page has more information: 

"Arabia (Ancient): They put south at the top. This is because when you
wake up and face the sun, south is on the right. Because of positive
associations with the right as opposed to left, they put that on top.
Yemen is so named because it is on the "yamin" right of Arabia. And of
course, with the sea to the south of them there was nothing "on top"
of the country, so they prefered it that way. Europeans learnt
mapmaking from the Arabians and flipped the map to make themselves on
top. [ Source: email from Jessica who heard a talk by an American
Muslim scholar called Hamza Yusuf. ]

Arctic/Antarctic: A natural map of the poles has either south or north
at the top and at the bottom - indeed, in all directions. Unusually,
the opposite compass direction will be located in the centre. [
Source: email from Fred made me realise this ]

Biblical Times: There is evidence from the Torah that east was at the
top of maps. In Genesis, Abraham's nephew, Lot, is captured in war and
carried away. Abraham races to the rescue. He and his men catch up
with Lot's captors, and set him free, in "Chovah, which is to the left
of Damascus." (Gen. 14:15). Chovah is north of Damascus. In Psalms
89:13 it says, "The north and the right, You created them". This
implies that right is synonymous with south, so you are facing east
when you read the map. [ Source: email from Toby ]

Medieval Europe: Jerusalem was on top because that was the Holy Land.
This meant that east was more or less at the top. [ Source: email from
JDG who has personal experience of medieval records ]

China (Ancient): The Chinese were the first to invent the compass,
which they always thought of as pointing south. South was a sacred
direction, in ceremony the king would always face south. [ Source:
email from Andy ]

China / Japan: In modern times, Chinese and Japanese maps are split at
the Atlantic, so have Japan right in the middle and China near the
center. [ Source: personal observation by Francis in early 2003; email
from Jez who used to live in Japan ]

New Zealand: Upsidedown or "corrected" maps are becoming more popular,
especially with tourists. For example, a tea towel with such a map
saying "no longer down under". [ Source: email from Jez who has bought
such a towel ] As a child, a New Zealand friend always referred to the
maps with North at the top as "the wrong way up", and this page's
"upside down" maps as "the right way up" or "the way it's supposed to
be..." [ Source: email from CH ]

Russia: The former soviet union placed its maps with the USSR at the center. 

US, Canada: Maps are as in Europe, with the Americas on the left [
Source: email from mp, email from Martin ]" (The last one, by the way,
is not alwasy true, I've already seen US maps where the Americas are
at the centre).

And Cecil Adams has also written about it: 
" The notion that north should always be up and east at the right was
established by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (90-168 AD). "Perhaps
this was because the better-known places in his world were in the
northern hemisphere, and on a flat map these were most convenient for
study if they were in the upper right-hand corner," historian Daniel
Boorstin opines. Mapmakers haven't always followed Ptolemy; during the
Middle Ages, Boorstin notes, maps often had east on top--whence the
expression "to orient." But north prevailed over the long haul. By the
time Southern Hemispheroids had become numerically significant enough
to bitch, the north-side-up convention was too well established to
(SOURCE: The Straight Dope, "On maps, why is north always up?"

I hope this answers your question. Please contact me if you need any
further clarifications on this answer before you rate it. My search
terms have been:
north on the top 	maps
"why do maps" north
victor_s-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $1.00

Subject: Re: Map making
From: neilzero-ga on 09 Mar 2005 04:13 PST
I have seen an occasional map where North was not at the top. I find
it confusing as they are quite rare. Like most things, consistancy is
best most of the time. Early maps were often used with a magnetic
compass, which points North, so perhaps this got the custom started
about 1000 years ago.   Neil
Subject: Re: Map making
From: myoarin-ga on 09 Mar 2005 06:27 PST
I agree with Neil, consistancy  - these days, and as a rule.
There were early maps (13th century?) where South was at the top,
perhaps European maps of the Mediterranean, perhaps due the maker and
users' orienting themselves to the South - maybe.  Surveyors sometimes
now prepare maps of small areas where North is not at the top so that
they can fit the area mapped at maximum size on the sheet.
"Orienting"  - since I used the word - obvious comes from Orient  -
the east.  Christian churches were traditionally "oriented", with the
apse and altar to the east, oriented towards Jerusalem  (kor were the
erstwhile pagans still praying to the rising sun?).
Subject: Re: Map making
From: victor_s-ga on 09 Mar 2005 09:35 PST
I would like to thank you all for your comments and answers to my
question. They was a lot of interesting and confirm my suspects on
this issue. I only want to say that the first time I wonder this
question was at the very early age of six years old and no one could
ressove it until now.

Thank you very much again.

Subject: Re: Map making
From: politicalguru-ga on 09 Mar 2005 11:06 PST
Thank you for the rating and the tip!
Subject: Re: Map making
From: myoarin-ga on 10 Mar 2005 06:35 PST
and thanks from me, too.  Put in my two bits and got back two dollars
of info as change!

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