Opinion

How the north ended up on top of the map

A cartographic history of what’s up

February 16, 2014 12:45PM ET
McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World.
Flickr
map
A world map drawn by the Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily, 1154.
Wikipedia

Why do maps always show the north as up? For those who don’t just take it for granted, the common answer is that Europeans made the maps and they wanted to be on top. But there’s really no good reason for the north to claim top-notch cartographic real estate over any other bearing, as an examination of old maps from different places and periods can confirm.

The profound arbitrariness of our current cartographic conventions was made evident by McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World, an iconic “upside down” view of the world that recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. Launched by Australian Stuart McArthur on Jan. 26, 1979 (Australia Day, naturally), this map is supposed to challenge our casual acceptance of European perspectives as global norms. But seen today with the title “Australia: No Longer Down Under,” it’s hard not to wonder why the upside-down map, for all its subversiveness, wasn’t called “Botswana: Back Where It Belongs” or perhaps “Paraguay Paramount!”

The McArthur map also makes us wonder why we are so quick to assume that Northern Europeans were the ones who invented the modern map — and decided which way to hold it — in the first place. As is so often the case, our eagerness to invoke Eurocentrism displays a certain bias of its own, since in fact, the north’s elite cartographic status owes more to Byzantine monks and Majorcan Jews than it does to any Englishman.

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.

Konrad Miller’s 1929 re-creation of al-Idrisi's famous Tabula Rogeriana from 1154.
Bibliotheque nationale de France/Wikipedia
map
A reproduction of Jorge de Aguiar’s chart of the Mediterranean, Western Europe and African coasts, 1492.
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Wikipedia

Things changed with the age of exploration. Like the Renaissance, this era didn’t start in Northern Europe. It began in the Mediterranean, somewhere between Europe and the Arab world. In the 14th and 15th centuries, increasingly precise navigational maps of the Mediterranean Sea and its many ports called Portolan charts appeared. They were designed for use by mariners navigating the sea’s trade routes with the help of a recently adopted technology, the compass. These maps had no real up or down — pictures and words faced in all sorts of directions, generally pointing inward from the edge of the map — but they all included a compass rose with north clearly distinguished from the other directions.

compass rose
The first known compass rose depicted on a map, in a detail from the Catalan Atlas from 1375, attributed to cartographer Abraham Cresques of Majorca.
Bibliotheque national de France/Wikipedia

Members of the Italian Cartographic School preferred to mark north with a hat or embellished arrow, while their equally influential colleagues from the Spanish-ruled island of Majorca used an elaborate rendering of Polaris, the North Star. These men, who formed the Majorcan Cartographic School, also established a number of other crucial mapping conventions of the era, including coloring in the Red Sea bright red and drawing the Alps as a giant chicken foot. Among other hints of the school’s predominantly Jewish membership was the nickname of one of its more prominent members: “el jueu de les bruixoles,” or “the Compass Jew.”

But this is only part of the explanation. The arrow of the compass can just as easily point south, since the magnetized metal needle simply aligns with the earth’s magnetic field, with a pole at each end. Indeed, the Chinese supposedly referred to their first compass magnets as south-pointing stones. Crucially, the Chinese developed this convention before they began to use compasses for navigation at sea. By the time Europeans adopted the compass, though, they were already experienced in navigating with reference to the North Star, the one point in the heavens that remains fixed anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Many mariners saw the compass as an artificial replacement for the star on cloudy nights and even assumed it was the pull of the star itself that drew the needle north.

vinland map
The Vinland map, a 15th century world map purportedly based on a 13th century original. If authentic, it is the first known depiction of the North American coastline.
Yale University/Wikipedia

Yet even as this north-pointing compass became essential to navigation and navigational charts in the 15th century, less precise land maps showing the entire known Old World continued to offer a disorienting array of perspectives. Some had the east on top, in keeping with European tradition, while others preferred the south, in keeping with Arab tradition, and others went with the north, in keeping with the point on the compass rose. Among other things that stand out in these maps is that, given the extent of the known world, the location of the Mediterranean and a bit of uncertainly about the equator, Italy was more or less centered between the north and the south — meaning that whichever way you turned the map, Italy remained more or less halfway between the top and bottom. Conveniently, Italy was at roughly the same latitude as Jerusalem, which through most of the century map makers assumed was at the center of the known world. In fact, the first blow to this pious assumption came with the discovery of just how much of the Old World lies to the east of Jerusalem. Only later did it become apparent just how far north of the equator Jerusalem — and by extension, Italy — really was.

Ptolemy
Ptolemy’s map.
The British Library Board/Getty Images

The north’s position was ultimately secured by the beginning of the 16th century, thanks to Ptolemy, with another European discovery that, like the New World, others had known about for quite some time. Ptolemy was a Hellenic cartographer from Egypt whose work in the second century A.D. laid out a systematic approach to mapping the world, complete with intersecting lines of longitude and latitude on a half-eaten-doughnut-shaped projection that reflected the curvature of the earth. The cartographers who made the first big, beautiful maps of the entire world, Old and New — men like Gerardus MercatorHenricus Martellus Germanus and Martin Waldseemuller — were obsessed with Ptolemy. They turned out copies of Ptolemy’s Geography on the newly invented printing press, put his portrait in the corners of their maps and used his writings to fill in places they had never been, even as their own discoveries were revealing the limitations of his work.

For reasons that have been lost to history, Ptolemy put the north up. Or at least that’s the way it appears from the only remaining copies of his work, made by 13th century Byzantine monks. On the one hand, Ptolemy realized that, sitting in Alexandria, he was in the northern half of a very large globe, whose size had been fairly accurately calculated by the ancient Greeks. On the other hand, it put Alexandria at the very bottom of the inhabited world as known to Ptolemy and all the main civilizational centers in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. 

For Americans, it’s easy to think that our position, at the top left of most maps, is the intrinsically preferable one. It’s unclear why Arabs or Israelis, who read from right to left, would necessarily think so.

Even if compasses and Ptolemy had both pointed to the south, northerners could still have come along and flipped things around. In fact, with north seemingly settled at the top of the page in the 16th century, there were still some squabbles over who in the Northern Hemisphere would end up left, right or center. The politics of reorientation are anything but simple. For Americans, it’s easy to think that our position, at the top-left of most maps, is the intrinsically preferable one; it certainly seems that way if you happen to be from a culture that reads from left to right. But it’s unclear why Arabs or Israelis, who read from right to left, would necessarily think so. And while map makers usually like to design maps with the edges running through one of the world’s major oceans, it is certainly possible to put North America in the very center by splitting the world in half through Asia.

As the United States was just beginning to emerge on the world stage in the 19th century, American cartographers made some earnest efforts to give the U.S. pride of place. While there is something endearing about the idea of an Indiana map maker in 1871 preparing an atlas with Indiana squarely in the center of the world, the unfortunate side effect was that most of the Midwest disappeared into the gaping crease between atlas pages. Nepal, of course, gets a bit cut off on the sides, but that is nothing compared with what happens to Nebraska. And ironically, accepting the United States’ position in the top left leaves Africa at the very center of the map, which is hardly in line with the politics of the time. Though this puts Africa in what was once considered the map’s prime real estate, it also reduces the continent’s relative size on the standard Mercator projection — another source of complaint for carto-critics.

The orientation of our maps, like so many other features of the modern world, arose from the interplay of chance, technology and politics in a way that defies our desire to impose easy or satisfying narratives. But at a time when the global south continues to suffer more than its share of violence and poverty, let’s not dismiss McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World too quickly. It continues to symbolize a noble wish: that we could overturn the unjust political and economic relationships in our world as easily as we can flip the maps on our walls.

Earth seen from Apollo 17.
NASA

Nick Danforth is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle East maps, history and politics at Midafternoon Map.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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