Why North?

Recently on Twitter, Vintage Maps posted a fifteenth century map of England, Scotland, and  Wales that was somewhat unusual in that South was at the top, so Scotland was at the bottom.

Numerous people found it bizarre or irritating and it was obvious that many people are somehow convinced that North must be at the top of a map. I can understand why, but there is no law, scientific necessity, or any compelling reason whatsoever as to why maps should be so orientated that North is at the top and in fact at other times and in other cultures maps did in fact have other orientations. To quote Jerry Brotton on the topic:

Ortelius describes the position from which a viewer looks at a world map, which is closely related to orientation – the location from which we take our bearings. Strictly speaking, orientation usually refers to relative position or direction; in modern times it has become established as fixing location relative to the points on a magnetic compass. But long before the invention of the compass in China in the second century AD, world maps were oriented according to one of the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. The decision to orientate maps according to one prime direction varies from one culture to another (as will be seen from the twelve maps discussed in this book), but there is no purely geographical reason why one direction is better than any other, or why modern Western maps have naturalized the assumption that north should be at the top of all world maps.

            Why north ultimately triumphed as the prime direction in the Western geographical tradition, especially considering its initially negative connotations for Christianity (discussed in Chapter 2), has never been fully explained. Later Greek maps and early medieval charts, or portolans, were drawn using magnetic compasses, which probably established the navigational superiority of the north-south axis over an east-west one; but even so there is little reason why south could not have been adopted as the simplest point of cardinal orientation instead, and indeed Muslim mapmakers continued to draw maps with south at the top long after the adoption of the compass. Whatever the reasons for the ultimate establishment of the north as the prime direction on world maps, it is quite clear that, as subsequent chapters will show, there are no compelling grounds for choosing one direction over another.[1]

It’s not just maps, all earlier cultures that had reached a certain level of development had buildings and other structures aligned to the four cardinal directions long before the invention of the compass, so how? Before I answer, I should explain that all that follows applies to the northern hemisphere, as all the maps discussed were all created in the northern hemisphere. 


Etymologically, ‘orientation’ stems from the original root oriens, which refers to the east, or the direction of the rising sun. Virtually all ancient cultures record their ability to orient themselves according to an east-west axis based on observations of the rising (eastern) and setting (western) sun, and a north-south axis measured according to the position of the North Star or the midday sun.[2]

However, these observations are not accurate enough to orientate a building, so how do you do that without a compass?

To lay out a basic east-west, north-south cross on the ground you just need a stick, or to give it its fancy name a gnomon, and a piece of string. You place the stick upright in the ground and draw a circle around it using the piece of string. You follow the shadow of the stick, which varies in length during the day and when it just touches the circle you mark that point. When it just touches the circle for the second time you mark that point. If you now join up those point the connecting line runs east-west. A north-south line is a right angle to this through the middle of the circle.


The oldest world map, the Babylonian Imago Mundi (sometime between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE) is centred on the Euphrates, which runs north-south, so it has north at the top.

Imago Mundi Babylonian map, the oldest known world map, 6th century BCE Babylonia. Now in the British Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Greek mapmakers also orientated their maps with north at the top, which I suspect is strongly influenced by the fact that the Mediterranean, which is at the centre of all Greek cartography, runs east-west, combined with the importance of the pole star in Greek astronomy.

The oldest surviving Ptolemaic world map, redrawn according to his 1st projection by monks at Constantinople under Maximus Planudes around 1300 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese maps were mostly orientated with north at the top, although the Han dynasty maps (202 BCE–202 CE) have south at the top. Brotton argues that in China the sun comes from the south, so the emperor looks to the south towards the sun and the people look to the north when looking up to the emperor, hence the north orientation. 

The Composite Map of the Ming Empire (Da Ming Hunyi Tu) reflects the political situation in AD 1389 but was likely painted much later. Original Chinese labels were later covered with Manchu on paper slips. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turning once again to Brotton: 

Such orientation [east-west, north-south] was as much symbolic and sacred as directional. In polytheistic sun- worshipping cultures, the east (oriens) was revered as the direction of renewal and life, closely followed by south, while the west was understandably associated with decline and death, and north with darkness and evil. The Judeo-Christian tradition developed these associations by orienteering places of worship as well as maps towards the east, which was ultimately regarded as the location of the Earthly Paradise. In contrast the west was associated with mortality, and the direction faced by Christ on the cross. The north became a sign of evil and satanic influence and was often the direction in which the heads of excommunicants and the unbaptised faced when they were buried.[3]

The European medieval mappae mundi (mappa mundi literally means cloth of the world) were not topological or geographical maps as we known them, but rather philosophical maps, which were intended to illustrate the Christian world view. In the middle, they had the Holy City, Jerusalem, which according to medieval Christian thought lay at the centre of the world. East was at the top with the Garden of Eden, as it stands in the Bible, “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2:8).

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England. Jerusalem is the small ornate circle in the middle of the map, the Garden of Eden or Paradise is the small circle at the top centre, and God sits on his throne above the Garden of Eden Source: Wikimedia Commons

Continuing with Brotton:

Islam and mapmakers like al-Idrīsī inherited a similar reverence for the east, although it developed an even stronger interest in the cardinal directions with the Qur’ānic injunction to its believers to pray in the sacred direction of Mecca, regardless of their location on the globe; finding the direction (known as qibla, or ‘sacred direction’) and direction to Mecca and the Kā’aba inspired some of the most complicated and elaborate maps and diagrammatic calculations of the medieval period. Most of the communities who converted to Islam in its early phase of rapid international expansion in the seventh and eight centuries lived directly north of Mecca, leading them to regard qibla as due south. As a result, most Muslim world maps, including al-Idrīsī were orientated with south at the top. This also neatly established continuity with the tradition of the recently conquered Zoroastrian communities in Persia, which regarded south as sacred.[4]

Source: Lost Maps of the Caliphs: Drawing the World in Eleventh-Century Cairo, Yossef Rapport and Emilie Savage-Smith, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2018, Plate 1

Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti (1100–1165) to give him his full Arabic name, was a Muslim geographer and cartographer, who lived for many years in Palermo, at the court of the Norman king of Sicily Roger II (1095–1154).

Source: Lost Maps of the Caliphs: Drawing the World in Eleventh-Century Cairo, Yossef Rapport and Emilie Savage-Smith, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2018, Plate 4

Roger commissioned him to create a map of the world and the result after many years work was the Tabula Rogeriana published in 1154. It is considered to the most accurate map of the world in pre-modern times. It, of course, has south at the top, as did all medieval Islamic maps.

Tabula Rogeriana 19th century reconstruction with labels in Latin Source: Wikimedia Commons

I think it was possibly the influence of medieval Islamic maps that led to south orientated maps in Europe in the late medieval early Renaissance period, such as the map that inspired this whole post. Another well-known example of a south orientated European Renaissance map is the 1500 Romweg map of the Nürnberger cartographer and instrument maker Erhard Etzlaub (c. 1460–c. 1531).

1500 Romweg map of the Nürnberger cartographer and instrument maker Erhard Etzlaub (c. 1460–c. 1531). Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a printed roadmap for pilgrims travelling to Rome for the Holy Year in 1500. It is considered to be the first modern European map with a scale to determine distances. All of Etzlaub’s maps have south at the top. 

Interestingly the Gough Map of Britain, which is difficult to date, but which was probably produced in the late fourteenth century has east at the top like the mappae mundi.

The Gough Map. North lies to the left of the map. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier than Etzlaub, the first medieval, European “mathematical” maps, which emerged as the mappae mundi were still being produced were the portolan charts, which began to appear in the Mediterranean as navigation aids in the fourteenth century. These are mostly orientated with north at the top but there are examples with other orientations. 

The 1559 chart from Joan Oliva of the Mediterranean has west at the top but the small inserted circular chart of the Atlantic is interesting. If viewed along the axis of the main chart it also has west at the top but if viewed alone for itself, it has north at the top.

Peter Whitfield, Charting the Oceans,The British Library, London, 2017, p. 87

Pierre Desceliers’ 1550 world map, probably intended to be laid out on a table has two orientations. If viewed from the southern hemisphere it has north at the top but if viewed. from the northern hemisphere it has south at the top. The two orientations are indicated by the written labels.

Map of the World Pierre Desceliers 1550 Source: British Library via Wikimedia Commons

We find the same double orientation on the earlier Mediterranean chart of Albino de Canepa from 1498, indicated by the pavilions.

Mediterranean chart of Albino de Canepa 1498 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jorge Aguiar’s Mediterranean map of 1492 is south orientated

Jorge Aguiar’s Mediterranean map of 1492 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As is the world map of Nicolas Desliens of 1566.*

Nicolas Desliens World Map 1566

I think that the re-emergence of the Ptolemaic world map at the beginning of the fifteenth century and the development of modern cartography that it triggered which eventually led to the dominance of north orientation in mapmaking, perhaps combined with the increased use of the magnetic compass. 

Of course, town plans, estate maps and plans of large building complexes are also maps and these are often not north orientated but according to what is the most rational way to view them as in this town plan. 

There is strong evidence that the current universal north orientation of maps leads to the way that the viewer perceives the world. Other orientation change our perception. We start with a map of Europe viewed from the USSR perspective

Various cartographers have created modern south orientated maps to provoke people into reconsidering their perceptions of the world. A good example is this world map.

“McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World” (1979) is not only south orientated but is also centred on the west pacific rather than the Atlantic. Stuart McArthur, sought to confront “the perpetual onslaught of ‘downunder’ jokes—implications from Northern nations that the height of a country’s prestige is determined by its equivalent spatial location on a conventional map of the world”[5]
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interesting in this context, whilst editing this blog post on Sunday 27 August 2022, I stumbled across a conference presenting and discussing the Te Moana Meridian concept on that day. This is a political movement attempting to move the prime meridian 180° from Greenwich to the middle of Te-moana-nui-o-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean in Te Reo Māori (‘the language of Māori’)). If world maps were thus centred, instead of one the middle of the Atlantic, it would radically change peoples perceptions of the world.

Te Moana Meridian explores how the arbitrary location of the prime meridian reinforces British and Western imperial and colonial hegemony, historically, and into the present. Through a polyphony of tactics the exhibition proposes a practical means for redressing this skewing of global diplomacy. In centering Te Moana-Nui-ā-Kiwa, the exhibition proposes a more equitable and multilateral system for negotiating time and space.

Finally, I close with this west orientated map of the Mediterranean by Sabine Réthoré and I can’t improve on the description by Amro Ali in this article

The “Mediterranean Without Borders” map was produced, in the political euphoria of 2011, by Paris-based artist Sabine Réthoré. Its profound simple 90-degree rotation not only underwrites an artistic streak, but can also largely impact one’s perspective. The end result is that the question is no longer about north-south as much as it is about parity and closeness. In the context of Mediterranean geopolitics, refugees crossing and drowning, fortress Europe, colonial history, skewed markets, condescending north to south (top to bottom) attitudes, post-colonial stagnation and so forth, means the simple rotation of the map is a big political statement with humanizing tendencies that make transnational ties look more intimate. That is an artistic statement in itself. This does not mean it will work for all maps, but it does so with the Mediterranean basin given the weight of its contemporary politics and long rich history.

The next time you look at a map, maybe you should turn it upside down or even sideways and try to see what it depicts from a new perspective. There really is no reason why north should be at the top.  

*A special thanks goes to Matthew Edney , when inadvertently drew my attention to the Nicolas Desliens World Map on Twitter as I was composing this blog post

[1] Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Allen Lane, 2012, pp. 10-11

[2] Brotton p. 57

[3] Brotton p. 57

[4] Brotton pp. 57-58

[5] Wood, D., Kaiser, W. L., Abramms, B., Seeing through MapsMany Ways to See the World, ODT Inc., 2006, pp. 50-51


Filed under History of Cartography

10 responses to “Why North?

  1. Pingback: Why North? — The Renaissance Mathematicus | Die Goldene Landschaft

  2. “This is a political movement attempting to move the prime meridian 180° from Greenwich to the middle of Te-moana-nui-o-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean in Te Reo Māori (‘the language of Māori’)). If world maps were thus centred, instead of one the middle of the Atlantic, it would radically change peoples perceptions of the world.”

    It certainly would, because it would put the International Date Line through the middle of Western Europe and West Africa instead of the Pacific Ocean.[1] There is an amusing Arthur C. Clarke short story “Trouble with Time” where the MacGuffin is that on a waterless world like Mars the Date line is on land (and there is one city, Meridian City, that straddles it).

    [1] We could, of course put the International Date Line down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, because even the existing International Date Line is not straight down the 180 degree longitude meridian.

    • If you follow the link and read the Te Moana Meridian movement’s manifesto, they also recommend abandoning the time zone system, viewing it as a colonialist imposition.

      • There is no limit to some people’s stupidity. Regardless of where you put the prime meridian, and even if everyone in the world lived on UTC, you still have to change the date every 24 hours and for some people that would be in the middle of the night and others in the middle of the day.

      • Their approach is much more abstract. Firstly, they appear to want to return to local time, sundials and all that. Secondly, a rejection of the linear time concept, which historically is very much a European concept. Many traditional cultures had very different philosophical concepts of time.

      • Local time only works when you don’t have to communicate with anyone else far away. Time zones and standard time are something that came in with the railways and are nothing to do with colonialism. Before the railways, it was quite normal for UK cities other than London to have their own local time, which was based on the sun. These people sound like utopians who want to go back to the days when canoes were this principal form of transport between the Pacific islands, and take the rest of us back to the Middle Ages with them.

      • ” Time zones and standard time are something that came in with the railways and are nothing to do with colonialism.”

        Your lack of historical perspective is fascinating. The European powers imposed the time zone system of their colonies, which at the time constituted a large part of the non-European world, without any form of consultation or consideration for the indigenous populations.

        Also, communication is more than possible irrespective of the time measuring system used and in fact took place for most of human history before the time zone system was introduced. It has only been in use for a little more that a century.

      • It doesn’t matter how slowly you do it, even Magellan’s surviving crew discovered that their calendar was a day out with respect to those who had stayed at home. It is an unavoidable consequence of living on a spheroidal planet that you have to have an International Date Line somewhere. The Te Moana Meridian only works on a flat earth, which seems appropriate given their ideas.

  3. Regarding linear vs. cyclical time, check out Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle by Stephen Jay Gould.

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