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Why is North up

On a map why is North at the top and South at the bottom?

OK I know it sounds like a silly question but why isn’t Europe on the left (West) of Africa, as it is on the Famous 13th century Mappa Mundi?  Why not continue to show the Egyptian Nile as flowing down the map (South) – as water flows down hill – as it was on ancient Egyptian maps, instead of northwards as it is today.

 The Mappa Mundi held by The Hereford Cathedral

Of course there were some old maps which did show North at the top.

I’ll assume you haven’t heard of Emperor Yi Bang-won who ruled Korea from 1400 to 1418 (not many people have). He ordered his court astronomers, led by Kwon Kun, to produce a map of his empire.  The map showed China (vastly enlarged) above India and the Korean peninsula: so North was upwards and South was down.

Oh and on Kwon Kun’s map Europe is the insignificant area on the left, above Africa which, for some reason, is almost completely filled by an inland sea.

 The Kwon Kun world map

Maps are a construct, a 2D representation of 3D geography, and they are all, each and every one, made for some specific reason. Basically it all depends on by whom, and why, a map is made.

As an example the 12th century map, by al-Idrisi, placed Africa at the top and Europe below. The reason for this was so that Arabian Peninsula could be placed at the center, with Mecca to the South – as the large urban areas, at that time, were all in the North of the Peninsular.

So, again, why is North at the top as there is no real geographic reason for showing maps with any preference for who’s at the top or bottom. The North Pole, which is perversely actually the southern pole of the Earth’s magnetic field, is always shown at the top.

There are a number of (possible) reasons, for example:

A history of astronomy.

The Europeans, who during the 16th were at the peak of their imperious power, were sailing around the globe basically doing what they wanted, were used to navigating by the only fixed star in the sky, the North Star. So, when an artificial method came about, it was natural that it should point in the same direction as the North Star. Upwards.

Why not, we drew the map.

The best known map from this era (1569) is by Mercator, who produced the first major map which attempted to take into account the curved shape of the Earth. Mercator’s map, as he was a European, also showed Europe in the center at the top. After Mercator all prominent maps showed the same basic layout. Europe was in the top section with the rest of the world either on the edge (the sides of the map) or below it (to the South).


Mercator’s map

But the real reason for North being at the top may never be known.  It could be, as I have said above, for no other reasons than in Europe compasses pointed almost at the North Star and that, for the past 500 years, it’s always been done like that.

But equally it could be something completely different.  A quick look around the internet will reveal many websites claiming to have the correct answer, but guessing what was in the mind of cartographers, 500 years ago, is always going to be just that, a guess.