Monthly Archives: October 2014

Terra Nullius: Bir Tawil

Imagine a land unclaimed by any country in the world. I know what you’re thinking: Here’s the place to start the great empire I’ve always dreamed of building.

There’s some bad news. Several people/groups have already claimed this land, and one man has gone so far as to create a flag, travel to the land and stick that flag in the ground in the name of his new state. The worse news, however, is that Bir Tawil, the land in question, has nothing that anyone could possibly want.

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Pictured above, courtesy of Google Earth: the land in question. Bir Tawil (Arabic for “deep well”) is the trapezoid dotted out in the center of the photograph. It looks desolate from space, and indeed, it is; Bir Tawil is a patch of rocky desert about 2,000 square kilometers in area (about the area of a mid-sized US county) on the border between Egypt and Sudan. And it is unclaimed by both countries. In fact, each country claims that the other is Bir Tawil’s rightful administrator. What’s going on here?

To understand just why Bir Tawil is so unwanted, we have to look at early 20th century colonial African history. At the turn of the last century, Egypt and Sudan both were unofficially ruled by Britain. After a briefly successful Sudanese revolt against British rule in 1896, the British colonial administration recaptured Sudan alongside Egyptian forces and established a “condominium”, or joint rule, between Britain and Egypt over the reconquered country. This new arrangement required the drawing of a border between Egypt and Sudan, and the 1899 line cut straight through the 22nd parallel. A later map, however, shifted this line to better reflect the realities of the border between the two colonies, and Sudan gained the 20,000 square kilometer Hala’ib Triangle, a prime piece of Red Sea real estate, while the comparatively useless Bir Tawil south of the 1899 border went to Egypt.

The Hala'ib Triangle and Bir Tawil.  The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

The Hala’ib Triangle and Bir Tawil. The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

After independence, both Egypt and Sudan claimed Hala’ib, with Egypt upholding the 1899 border and Sudan pushing the 1902 border in opposition. As a strange quirk of this argument, neither country had any basis to claim Bir Tawil – so neither claimed it. Bir Tawil, as a result, is officially terra nullius. Nobody wants it. Which means you can go there and do whatever you want, right?

Well, that’s just the problem – there probably isn’t anything to do in Bir Tawil. There are good reasons Egypt and Sudan both prefer Hala’ib, which has actual settlements and a coastline, to Bir Tawil, which has no settlements, no natural resources, and no access to water. It’s a rocky desert withpatches of shrubs and stuff like that. Herders have used the land in the past, but nobody lives there and, again, there are good reasons for that.

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it's probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it’s probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

Naturally, the fact of Bir Tawil’s inaccessibility and hostility has not stopped idiots in other countries from claiming the land for themselves. Most recently, an American traveled to Bir Tawil and planted a flag there, declaring it the Kingdom of North Sudan and his seven year-old daughter the princess of it. It’s admirable that a parent would go so far to make his kid happy, but declaring your kids royalty of new made-up countries borders on spoiling them, doesn’t it?

In any case, neither Egypt nor Sudan have commented on Mr. Heaton’s claim on Bir Tawil, and it’s unlikely that they will ever countenance a third-party claim on the land, considering that a final agreement between the countries will require one of them to end up holding Bir Tawil anyway. And it’s just as well, because there is no reason to go to this patch of rock and sand. If you want to declare your own country, declare it in your own backyard or in your apartment. Nobody will stop you unless you do something dumb like declare war on your neighbors and lob projectiles into their yards. Bir Tawil is interesting as a question of international law, but that’s all it has going for it.

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Exploring Panama City: Historic Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo de Panama) sits at the center of old Panama. After the original 16th century settlement of Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by the famous English pirate Henry Morgan, this second town was built several miles away. The 17th century Casco Viejo contains many of the city’s historical treasures and most interesting architecture (especially if you’re a fan of the Spanish baroque style, which it’s full of – Casco Viejo itself was built by the Spanish settlers around that period.)

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The baroque district of the city is filled with plazas like you see in the picture above. The monument in the center is dedicated to Simon Bolivar and the revolutions that tore most of the Americas away from Spanish royal rule in the early 19th century.

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Despite all that, a lot of the architecture in Casco Viejo is a result of Spanish influence. This skeleton of a structure used to be the Church of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuit order. It was devastated by a fire and a later earthquake, but its frame still stands. It’s now a home for old Panama’s stray cats.

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This guy didn’t seem to mind having his picture taken. He must be used to tourists.

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One of the most remarkable places in the old city is hidden away in a narrow alley. The Church of San Jose is hard to find (just like everything else in Casco Viejo, in fact.) But it’s well worth finding.

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

The golden altar of the Church of San Jose does involve some real gold – it’s covered in gold leaf. It’s also unique for its history. This altar first stood in the original 16th century city of Panama Viejo. The settlement was plundered and put to the torch in 1671 by the aforementioned Henry Morgan, but he didn’t bother to carry off this priceless piece. To disguise its value, the Jesuit brothers of the church painted the whole thing black. Once the coast was clear, they removed it and sent it along to the new capital of Panama – the district now know as Casco Viejo – and built a church around it.

Casco has a few major plazas lined with cafes and restaurants. Most of them have free wireless, but there’s no reason not to stop by one of the neighborhood’s many locales. Panama has a lot of good coffee and cheap beer to offer, and a lot of it’s served in Casco Viejo.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The Plaza de Francia is situated right on the tip of Casco Viejo facing out towards the Pacific Ocean. The French plaza was built in the 19th century to commemorate the original French effort to build the Panama Canal, and it still hosts the French mission to Panama. I really liked this part of the neighborhood. The monument itself (below) was off limits for some kind of construction or maintenance, though.

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Casco Viejo is a grid of narrow alleys broken up by a few plazas. Pictured below is the Plaza de la Independencia, seemingly the central square of the old city. Casco Viejo feels a little bit like a scaled-down version of old Madrid – there’s nothing nearly as grand as the Puerta del Sol or the Plaza Mayor, but it has a similar atmosphere. The biggest difference is that while Madrid’s old city lies right in the center of the modern metropolis, the true center of Panama City has long since shifted away from Casco, so Panama’s old city feels a little bit deserted – especially on a weekday.

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If you ever stop by Panama City, you can’t afford to miss Casco Viejo. It’s just a $3-4 taxi ride from the center of town (cheap compared to taxis in the US, but from what I heard later I might have been overcharged.) The neighborhood has plenty of nice cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs and has an active nightlife.

Be sure to visit the Canal Museum during a daytime trip to Casco Viejo. The Miraflores Locks, situated at the Canal near Panama City, is a must-see, but the museum in Casco has all of the actual documents and mementos associated with the Canal itself. It’s cheap to visit and the building is air-conditioned. I’ve said that before, but it’s worth repeating. You’ll really want to get out of the heat for a while.

Olive oil: A healthy alternative to a stick of butter

I’m not a good cook. The only meals I can make are either already prepared or something I can fry on the stove (eggs, for example.) Basically, I can make a mean breakfast, but lunch and dinner for me means sandwiches, frozen dinners or takeout.

Lately I’ve been trying to cook more for myself and change my eating habits. Instead of throwing great gobs of real butter on toast and using it to fry with, I’ve switched over to olive oil.

Olive oil is incredibly useful. It goes well on toast and other forms of bread. It makes a good mix with tuna. And it’s a great frying medium for eggs and other foods that you can fry in a pan. There’s a reason the Italians, Greeks and Arabs use so much of it: olive oil goes well with a lot of foods and it’s healthy. Nutritionists seem to be agreed that olive oil is good to eat, and thousands of years of Mediterranean cuisine can’t be wrong.

(Source: Paul Goyette, Creative Commons)

(Source: Paul Goyette, Creative Commons)

Pictured above: one of the most common uses of olive oil in Mediterranean cooking. Hummus has become surprisingly popular in the United States, but a lot of Americans don’t know that hummus is traditionally served with olive oil. A plate of hummus with olive oil and a loaf of pita bread make for a healthy and filling breakfast.

There are different grades of olive oil, but the best to use raw is extra virgin. It’s more expensive, and generally speaking, the darker/greener it is the better. The stuff I’ve got right now is extra virgin but is quite yellow – it’s a basic cheap bottle. I’m a student and can’t go all out on a 20 dollar import of the finest Spanish olive oil. I need that money for other things.

If you’re planning to use your olive oil just for frying with, though, don’t bother getting extra virgin – just buy a bottle of the low-end oil. Don’t waste the good stuff in a frying pan.

Oil and vinegar are all you need to make a simple and healthy salad dressing.  If you can eat that salad while sitting on a balcony overlooking a scenic valley, even better.  (Source: hitham alfalah, Creative Commons)

Oil and vinegar are all you need to make a simple and healthy salad dressing. If you can eat that salad while sitting on a balcony overlooking a scenic valley, even better. (Source: hitham alfalah, Creative Commons)

What makes olive oil healthy? This food is high in unsaturated fats, which have various benefits including a reduced risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol. A doctor from the Mayo Clinic endorses it here, though he notes that while olive oil has healthy fats, it is also high in those fats, so it should be used in moderation.

So if you want to have a healthier alternative to butter or a less crappy alternative to margarine or the various “spreads” in the fake dairy aisle of the market, try out some olive oil.