Map Orientation

Caitlin Dempsey


Maps are usually created from the perspective of a particular direction.  The directionality of a map is known as its orientation.  

The popularity of online mapping such as Google Maps has conditioned many people to expect due north to always be towards the top of the map and south towards the bottom.  

Historically, maps have not always been oriented north.  Different geographic and religious influences have changed over time how maps are oriented.  

Aesthetics, political interests, egotism, and navigation are some of the other reasons why cartographers over the ages have used different map orientations.

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North Orientation Maps

Claudia Ptolemy (90-168 AD), a classical Greek cartographer was credited with creating the first known atlas.  His collection of cartography in Geographia, was an early example of orienting maps towards the north.  

North orientation came back into favor during the Great Age of Exploration with the need for seafaring explorers to orient themselves with their compasses.  The importance of orienting maps towards the north was a reflection of the importance of knowing where magnetic north was.  

Today, a north orientation is commonplace among many cartographers and almost all online mapping applications.

Ptolemy's World Map from Geographia (~150 CE), reproduced in the 15th Century.
Ptolemy’s World Map from Geographia (~150 CE), reproduced in the 15th Century.

East Orientation Maps

During the medieval age religious doctrine influenced cartography.

European cartographers oriented their maps towards the Holy Land since Jerusalem was the place of Christ’s death and resurrection.  In fact, the world “orient” comes from the Latin word “oriens”, meaning East.  

Examples of maps with an east orientation are the Mappa Mundi (Medieval European world maps) such as the T-O map.

The T-O maps was a symbolic representation of the world, with the O representing boundary of the world, encircled by the earth’s oceans. The T nested inside the O divided the world into the Northern Hemispheres’ three continents: Asia at the top, Europe to the left, and Africa to the right (the southern hemisphere was ignored as it was considered inhabitable at the time).

The horizontal bar of the T represented the Mediterranean Sea and the vertical portion of the T the Nile River and Don River.

Heavily influenced by Christianity, European cartographers in medieval times oriented the maps so that east was at the top where the sun rose and the Paradise was thought to lie.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, circa 1300, England.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi, circa 1300, England.

West Orientation Maps

There aren’t a lot of west orientation maps.  

In 1635, a map of New Netherlands and New England created by Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu shows a west orientation.

A map of New Netherlands and New England created by Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu has a west orientation, 1635.
A map of New Netherlands and New England created by Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu has a west orientation, 1635.

Jan Huygen Linschoten’s Map of South America created in 1596 is another example of a west-oriented map. The South America has been tilted so that the length of the continent is stretched horizontally across the page.

South Orientation Maps

Maps with south oriented towards the top of the map are known as south-up or reverse maps, since the map appears upside down to those used to a map orientation towards the north.

In these maps, South is oriented the top of the map, east is towards the left of the map and west towards the right.

Arab cartographers like Ibn Hawqal commonly use a south map orientation; in the tenth century he created a world map with south at the top.  

The Moroccan cartographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, drew a world map in 1154 commonly known as “Tabula Rogeriana” (Book of Roger) for King Roger II of Sicily, showing south at the top of the map.

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 by Muhammad al-Idrisi with south orientation.
Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 by Muhammad al-Idrisi with south orientation.

Cartographers from the Dieppe School of Cartography in the 16th century produced table maps with a south orientation.

Pierre Desceliers, a French cartographer during the Renaissance creating a world map in 1550 meant to be viewed around a table and showed parts of the world turn towards the south.  

In 1566 Nicolas Desliens also created a map of the world showing south towards the top. The map is currently housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Map by Jean Rotz from his Boke of Idrography presented to Henry VIII of England in 1542. South is oriented at the top of the page.
Map by Jean Rotz from his Boke of Idrography presented to Henry VIII of England in 1542. South is oriented at the top of the page.

In contemporary cartography, south-up maps are mostly created to protest Western Hemisphere bias in some world maps.

Launched on Australia day, Stuart McArthur premiered his Universal Corrective Map (1979) which showed a south orientation.

South-up Peters projection map

This concept was the focus of a scene in the West Wing’s second season episode, “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” where a south-up Peters projection map is featured in a presentation by the fictitious Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality which advocated for the mandated use of the Peters map projection in elementary school geography courses as a more realistic representation of the world.

No Unified Map Orientation

Maps produced during the Golden Age of Japanese Cartography from the 1600s to around 1855 had no standard orientation.

Many maps had a center orientation radiating from the palace in Edo or no apparent directional orientation.

It wasn’t was until the influx of foreign influences starting with Commodore Perry’s Expedition in the 1850s that Japanese cartography started to adopt western traditions of orienting maps towards the north.

Custom Map Orientation

Not all maps are oriented due north, south, east, or west. Some maps have a custom orientation to promote a political purpose or to help with navigation.

For example, maps created by the City of Santa Monica have a rotation of 46 degrees so that the beach is always shown at the bottom of maps.  This is done for aesthetic purposes and results in an orientation that is northeast instead of due north.

The New York City Department of Transportation places pedestrian friendly maps around the city with the orientation rotated to be “heads-up” or forward-facing so that viewers are facing the map in the same direction they standing for readability. This helps pedestrians to better orient themselves in relationship to the landmarks on the map and to better navigate the city.

A lot of tourist maps for amusement parks, zoos, and other areas of interest commonly show the entrance to the location at the bottom of the map to help people orient themselves better.

Polar Maps of the Arctic and Antarctica have custom projections with orientations towards the poles.

Maps and References

Dempsey, Caitlin.  2013. “Maps for the North Challenged Coming to New York City.  GIS Lounge.  Retrieved September 13, 2014.

Dempsey, Caitlin. “To North Arrow or Not to North Arrow.” GIS Lounge, 13 Sept. 2011. Retrieved 10 Jan. 2014:

Edo. 1849. Japanese Map of Edo or Tokyo, Japan

Edson, Evelyn. Mapping Time and Space: How Medieval Mapmakers Viewed Their World. London: British Library, 1997. Print.

Gulliver, F. P. (1908). Orientation of maps. Journal of Geography7(3), 55-58.

Nicolas Deslins 1566 – Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Irving, Francis. “The Upsidedown Map Page.” World Maps with South at the Top. 04 Aug. 2008. Retrieved 11 Jan. 2014:

Unno, Kazutaka. (1994). “Cartography in Japan”. Chapter 11 in vol. 2, book two of History of Cartography: Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies(Hartley et al., eds.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.