Uncommon Knowledge: Why is north up?

Hand Engraved Compass Necklaces by Kevin & Deborah Healy| UnommonGoodsWe pretty much take it for granted that, when we spread a map out on a table, the top of the paper is going to be north. But if you think about it, there’s no absolute reason that should be the case. In fact, ancient Egyptian cartographers positioned south at the top of world, possibly because of the south-to-north flow of the Nile River. During the Middle Ages, map-makers based their work on both the rising of the sun and Christian symbolism to place east at the top of the map. This dominance of the east is why, today, we talk about using a map to “orient” ourselves. But our modern, north-focused perspective ultimately goes all the way back to Ptolemy, from second century Egypt, whose beautifully detailed charts of the known world, complete with latitude and longitude reflecting the curvature of the earth, placed north at the top. It is unknown why he chose this layout, but his work was so influential on mapmakers throughout the centuries that followed, that he literally changed the way we view the world today.

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Written by Nathan

Nathan is a copywriter, who helps create our product descriptions as well as our weekly emails. He is also a nationally award-winning musical theater writer, whose work includes an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver. Nathan has also been a classical violinist, tutored Kazakhstani jewelers in entrepreneurship, created large-scale games played across entire city blocks, served as a missionary in South Korea, conducted experiments in sonoluminescence, co-founded an exotic fruit-growing business, was a theater critic for Tucson Weekly, and as a teenager composed a women’s jazz quartet that is currently performed around the world.

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