It is not down in any map; true places never are

The orientation of a map is the relationship between the directions on the map and the corresponding compass directions in reality. The word “orient” is derived from Latin oriens, meaning East. In the Middle Ages many maps, including the T and O maps, were drawn with East at the top (meaning that the direction “up” on the map corresponds to East on the compass). Today, the most common – but far from universal – cartographic convention is that North is at the top of a map.

  • Maps from non-Western traditions are oriented a variety of ways. Old maps of Edo show the Japanese imperial palace as the “top”, but also at the centre, of the map. Labels on the map are oriented in such a way that you cannot read them properly unless you put the imperial palace above your head
  • Medieval European T and O maps such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi were centred on Jerusalem with East at the top. Indeed, prior to the reintroduction of Ptolemy’s Geography to Europe around 1400, there was no single convention in the West. Portolan charts, for example, are oriented to the shores they describe.
  • Maps of cities bordering a sea are often conventionally oriented with the sea at the top.
  • Route and channel maps have traditionally been oriented to the road or waterway they describe.

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