Why do maps show north up?

Most objects in this world have their top and bottom properly defined. Just look at your fridge, TV, car, or even the human body – there’s a clear definition of what’s up and what’s down. However, in the case of spherical objects such as a tennis ball, how would you define top and bottom. Obviously, a tennis ball has no top or bottom. Unless of course you take a pen and mark the top and bottom for your convenience.

Since the earth also has a round shape, one wonders why the maps always show north at the top and south at the bottom. Earth is essentially floating inside an infinite universe, so it can never have a definite top or bottom. Depending on where you look at it, any part of the earth can appear above it. But current maps still show the northern hemisphere at the top. For answers, here’s why maps show north up.

Earlier maps pointed east, south

In some ancient civilizations, the East was considered the upper part of the world. It is because the sun emerged from this side. As ancient civilizations held the sun sacred, the eastern side was believed to be the top of the world. There are also some civilizations that had maps showing south at the top. For example, ancient Egyptian maps showed south at the top. This is mainly because the Nile flows from south to north. As rivers were generally believed to flow downward, Egyptian maps depicted south at the top.

The Chinese also used to have their compass pointed north. This was based on religious beliefs, as the south was considered sacred. During religious events, kings faced south. This may be based on the fact that the northern regions of China were largely uninhabited at that time. The Arabs also had the south on the best maps based on religious beliefs. The initial Islamic population was largely located north of Mecca. A map of the south on top ensured that followers would always find themselves looking towards their sacred place of worship.

European explorers

The north orientation on top of maps gained prominence when Europeans began their explorations around the world. It started somewhere around the 15th century. As explorations initially focused on the northern hemisphere, it was natural for cartographers of the time to indicate north at the top of maps.

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

Global standard

In an interconnected world with intense air and maritime traffic, it is important to have a standardized view of the world. Since most systems are built around the north on the best maps, it has become a way of life for us. Adopting a different point of view may be possible, but it would justify major changes in the way the world works today. Essentially, north-on-top maps will continue to be a standard across the world. And it really doesn’t matter unless you have specific political or religious reasons to believe otherwise.

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