How North Became the Top of the Map

Almost every map you see is oriented with north at the top, which makes reading them universally easier -not because of the direction, but because of the consistency. It wasn’t always like that. Nick Danforth looks at the history of cartography to find out why north was chosen as “up” on maps. It wasn’t always that way. Ancient maps were oriented in various directions. So how was north chosen as the standard?

There is nothing inevitable or intrinsically correct — not in geographic, cartographic or even philosophical terms — about the north being represented as up, because up on a map is a human construction, not a natural one. Some of the very earliest Egyptian maps show the south as up, presumably equating the Nile’s northward flow with the force of gravity. And there was a long stretch in the medieval era when most European maps were drawn with the east on the top. If there was any doubt about this move’s religious significance, they eliminated it with their maps’ pious illustrations, whether of Adam and Eve or Christ enthroned. In the same period, Arab map makers often drew maps with the south facing up, possibly because this was how the Chinese did it.

Easy explanations are that early mapmakers were from the Northern Hemisphere, or that the North Star directed the choice -but neither of those theories really hold up. It turns out that the standard of north as “up” on a map was mainly due to one very influential mapmaker who set standards that were used by the majority of cartographers who came after -although not without some political hiccups. Read that story at Aljazeera America. -via the Presurfer


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Thank you. This might be some remains of the long during Califat in Al-Andalus. If you refere to the original story, it get's sens. However, Barcelona never was realy part of it.
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I live south of Barcelona and have visited the City many times and have accumulated several maps of the City. I had never noticed really, but you are correct! My Valencia map is the "correct" way round – i.e. North at the top. Other towns along the coast however are as Barcelona - Gandia, Denia, and Calpe for instance. Javea is the same orientation as Valencia. The really odd one is Teulada-Moraira which shows the Mediterranean on the left! This means South is shown at the top of the map.

I suspect town and City maps do not abide by the same rules as world maps. When you are out and about with a city map it is easier to hold in landscape rather than portrait mode so if a City is longer North to South than East to West it will be depicted left to right rather than top to bottom. Perhaps Teulada-Moraira maps got printed upside down!
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There is at least one exception to this conventional representaion. Every city map of Barcelona is drawn the mediterranean at the bottom or West on Top. If you know others tell me.
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