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Alexander V. Podossinov (Александр Васильевич Подосинов):

Orientation of old maps from ancient times to the early Middle Ages

Cartographica Helvetica 7 (1993) 33–43


Orientation is one of the most important factors in a map regarded as a component of material and spiritual culture of a society.

If we believe (and there is every reason to do so), that a map's orientation is closely related to the principles and skills of orientation inherent in a society, this opens us a promising avenue of research in cartographical material in the context of history of culture. It is known that principles of orientation affect many spheres of society's sacral and secular life: construction and location of dwellings, military camps and towns, temples, churches, ritual sites, orientation in prayers, fortune-telling, processions, rituals and other cult acts, funerals, and so on. Topographical and geographical, astronomical, cosmological, religious, and other factors, are tied in one knot here. Obviously, orientation of maps must be included in the overall orientation context.

The difficulty is that only very few maps with clearly defined orientation survived. These are:

  • the clay tablet map from Yorgan Tepe (Mesopotamia, c. 2300 BC) with an easterly orientation
  • the Babylonian map of the world (c. 600 BC) with the north at the top
  • several Egyptian maps with dubious (possibly southern) orientation
  • the Greek map of Ephorus (4th century BC) with the south at the top
  • the Peutinger map (2nd to 4th centuries AD) and Ptolemy's maps (2nd century AD), which are certainly oriented to the north
  • the Dura-Europos shield (about mid-3rd century AD) with the west at the top
  • the Madaba mosaic map (6th century AD) with easterly orientation
  • some medieval maps, illustrating ancient and early medieval authors, with easterly orientation

Medieval Christian maps are orientated with the east at the top because of the Garden of Eden. The article contains a table on the orientation of 15 of the most important medieval maps until 1300 AD.

It is quite evident that the small number of the authentic maps makes the conclusions about the orientation tradition of ancient cartography rather doubtful. Nevertheless, the comparison of maps' orientation with other kinds of orientation provides a new understanding of some aspects of the history of cartography.

Bibliographic note

  • Article translated from English and edited by Arthur Dürst, Zurich.
  • Based on a paper read at 14th International Conference on the History of Cartography, Uppsala and Stockholm, 14 to 19 June 1991.

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