Why Maps Show North On Top?

Most objects in this world have their top and bottom properly defined. Just look at your refrigerator, television, car, or even the human body – there’s a clear definition of what’s top and bottom. However, in case of spherical objects such as a tennis ball, how will you define the top and bottom. Clearly, a tennis ball does not have a top or bottom. Unless of course, you take a pen and mark out the top and bottom for your convenience.

As earth also has a round shape, it makes us wonder why maps always show north on top and south at the bottom. Earth is essentially floating inside an infinite universe, so it can never have a definitive top or bottom. Depending on from where you are looking at it, any part of the earth can appear on top. But present-day maps always show the northern hemisphere on top. For answers, here’s a look at why maps show north on top.

Earlier maps pointed east, south

In some ancient civilizations, east was treated as the top part of the world. That’s because the sun emerged from that side. As ancient civilizations treated the sun as sacred, it was believed that the east side was the top of the world. There are also some civilizations that had maps showing south on top. For example, old Egyptian maps showed south on top. It was primarily because the Nile River flows from south to north. As it was generally believed that rivers flow downwards, Egyptian maps depicted south as top.

Chinese also used to have their compass point to north. This was based on religious beliefs, as south was considered sacred. In religious events, the kings used to face south. This may be based on the fact that norther parts of China were largely uninhabited at that time. Arabs also had south on top maps based on religious beliefs. Initial Islamic population was largely located north of Mecca. A south on top map ensured that the followers will be always find themselves looking towards their sacred place of worship.

European explorers

The north on top orientation for maps gained prominence when Europeans started their explorations throughout the world. This started somewhere around fifteenth century. As the explorations were initially focused on northern hemisphere, it was natural for the cartographers of that time to show north on top in maps.

One of the most significant contributions came from cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who released his world map in 1569. It was so accurate and reliable that it was adopted as a standard. With the help of Mercator’s map, sailors could easily reach their destination without getting lost. Since then, showing north as top of the world has become a norm.

World standard

In an interconnected world with busy air and sea traffic, it is important to have a standardized view of the world. As most of the systems are built around north on top maps, it has become a way of life for us. Taking a different view may be possible, but it would warrant major changes to how the world currently operates. In essence, north on top maps will continue to be a standard across the globe. And it really doesn’t matter unless you have specific political or religious reasons to believe otherwise.

Comments are closed.