Via Al Jazeera:
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…
…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.
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.
Image: A perfectly good map. Select to embiggen.
The Naval Academy has a old map that is centered on the North Pole. The map is close to 10 feet wide and 10 feet tall if I remember correctly. It was always very cool to look it. The scary part is remembering that it was intended for planning flight paths to bomb the Soviet Union.