Map orientation and cultural nomenclature

A question from Yahoo! Answers:

Why are maps oriented the way they are?

What I mean is, why is North America always on the far left (west) and Asia on the far right (east)? I know it’s due to the prime meridian (which is just an imaginary line), but WHO and more importantly, WHY was it decided that a round planet should be broken up in that particular way? Was it done way back when the Earth was supposedly flat and that way of making maps just continued to be passed down?

And why are we (in North America) called Westerners, when in reality, there is no real west? If you want to get technical, Asia is to the west of us just as much as we are to the west of them since the Earth is round.

Is it all done just to make things simpler? Because to me, it kind of just complicates things.

Your questions have more to do with history than with geography…

Why is North America always on the far left and Asia on the far right? Well, let me rephrase that: why is Europe always in the middle? Because the first world maps were put together in Europe, which for a long time thought itself to be the center of the world. Since then, the layout became a sort of an unwritten standard, partly because it allows the greatest amount of landmass to be shown with the least distortion…

Why are North Americans called Westerners? Again, the answer has to do with Europe. Ancient Greeks thought of themselves as Westerners, since they only knew of major civilizations to their East (most notably, Persia). Romans have inherited that notion, which subsequently passed on to medieval Europe. There, it took on an additional meaning, because in 1054, Christianity divided into Catholicism (Western Christianity) and Orthodoxy (Eastern Christianity). A Westerner, therefore, was someone who thought that the pope in Rome (rather than the patriarch in Constantinople) was the highest religious authority. Reformation did not change this notation, since there was no clear geographic boundary between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholics and Protestants were still collectively referred to as Westerners, as opposed to Muslims or Eastern Christians. When Europeans started moving to North America (as well as Australia and New Zealand), they still thought of themselves as Westerners…

More recently, West and East were labels hung on the opposing parties in the Cold War. U.S., its Western European allies, and Japan were collectively referred to as “the West”; Soviet Union, the countries of the Warsaw Pact (all of which were located in Eastern Europe) and a few other Communist countries (such as Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea) were collectively referred to as “the East”. A funny thing about it is that Greece and Turkey, which belong to the “East” in the religious meaning of the term (Greece is an Orthodox country, while Turkey is Muslim), belong to the “West” in terms of Cold War geopolitics, since they are NATO members…

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