The Disoriented Orientation of maps.

Updated: Feb 1

𝐍𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐡 𝐢𝐬 𝐮𝐩, 𝐒𝐨𝐮𝐭𝐡 𝐢𝐬 𝐝𝐨𝐰𝐧, 𝐖𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐥𝐞𝐟𝐭 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐄𝐚𝐬𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭. 𝐓𝐡𝐞𝐬𝐞 𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐬 𝐰𝐞 𝐤𝐧𝐨𝐰 𝐭𝐨 𝐛𝐞 𝐭𝐫𝐮𝐞. We know this because we've been taught it, we've seen it on our maps, at the top of weather mains, in the art on our walls, North is up! But is it? Would we know what to do if things were flipped upside down? 𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐝𝐨 𝐰𝐞 𝐝𝐨 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐍𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐡 𝐢𝐬𝐧’𝐭 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐰𝐞 𝐞𝐱𝐩𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐢𝐭❓

The disorienting truth is North isn’t always up. So why is it that we are so fixated on the fixed compass? Most of us learned to navigate by reading maps that place North at the top but did you know this actually gives us a disadvantage? It creates maps that don’t align to the ground making it harder for the mind to determine which way to go. Which brings us back to the question why is north at the top? And was this always the case? Let’s take a little look at map orientation through history.

🗺 𝐄𝐚𝐬𝐭 𝐮𝐩

During the Middle Ages with paper being scarce and illiteracy ramped Christian monks were the ones with the resources and education to produce maps. As expected they would often add a religious tone. The monks would orient East at the top of the map to highlight the holy city of Jerusalem. The cartographic monks we're not the first East up mappers. East up goes back all the way to Ancient Egypt. To the Egyptians East was sacred it represented the rising sun and new life. So naturally East was the highlight of their maps.

🗺𝐒𝐨𝐮𝐭𝐡 𝐮𝐩

South up maps are just that, maps drawn depicting South at the top. The maps can be particularly disorienting, placing West to the left and East to the right. These maps were popular among Arab cartographers. Such as Ibn Hawqal who chose south map orientation for his 10th century wold map.

🗺 𝐅𝐫𝐨𝐧𝐭 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐂𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐞𝐫

Many cultures draw maps depicting themselves at the center. An example of these narcissistic maps of old would be the maps of Edo where they placed The Japanese imperial palace in the center and the top.

In addition Maps produced by cities that boarder border the sea like to conventionally orient themselves with the ocean at the top.

🗺𝐖𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐮𝐩

West oriented maps are rather a rarity throughout history with there only being a few examples. One such example is the Willem Blaeu 1635 map of New Netherlands and New England. The Dutch cartographer chose to put West at the top in the most accurate of the time map of the area

🗺 𝐍𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐡 𝐮𝐩

Our old friend, the one we are most familiar (and comfortable) with. The maps that make sense. They put north at the top neatly following the clean orientation of the poles. Land mass in the center then the North Pole at the top and the South Pole at the bottom. This orientation also conveniently places the equator in the middle. An early example of this type of map would bet he first atlas of its kind Ptolemy's Geographia. Ptolemy was an Alexandrian mathematician and exploration enthusiast. His famous atlasGeographia, was an early example of orienting maps towards the north. Later on with ocean exploration North up became a necessity with seafaring explorers needing to orient themselves with magnetic North of their compasses.

There you have it, map orientation in a nut shell. Would you be able to navigate with one of these maps? 𝐎𝐫 𝐰𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐥𝐝 𝐛𝐞 𝐭𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐞𝐝 𝐮𝐩𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐞 𝐝𝐨𝐰𝐧 𝐢𝐟 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐦𝐚𝐩 𝐰𝐚𝐬?

Shown: 1921 East Up map of Lake Tahoe

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