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.
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.
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)
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.