Bir Tawil is a 2006-square-kilometre piece of land sandwiched between Egypt and Sudan that holds the lofty title of being the last unclaimed and uninhabited piece of land on earth, or to give it its funky latin title terra nullius. Alas the story is a little bit more complicated than that…

Why is Bir Tawil unclaimed?

Well this is where it gets interesting. It is less “unclaimed”, and more the victim (or winner) in a territorial dispute between Egypt and Sudan. During the good old days, Egypt and Sudan formed a condominium controlled by the British Empire, this meant that much like in the border disputes that would later rock the USSR, a proper border wasn’t all that important.

The fact that there were two differing maps drawn to mark the border between Egypt and Sudan, whilst not important at the time, would later come back to haunt them. In 1899 and 1902 there were two different boundaries drawn – the 1899 border gives the Hala’ib Triangle to Egypt and Bir Tawil to Sudan, with the 1902 border doing the reverse.

The problem here is that it turns out that the Hala’ib Triangle is not only really nice (it even has a beach), but that Bir Tawil is essentially a crappy bit of desert. Therefore if you claim one, you cannot claim the other. Unsurprisingly, both claim the good bit, and thus Bir Tawil is “unclaimed”. Except it is no longer unclaimed…

Life in Bir-Tawil by Gareth Johnson.

Who claims Bir Tawil?

The internet has achieved a lot of good things, from food delivery to Tinder, but it has also given a platform for strange people’s voices to get amplified, and Bir Tawil is now the poster child for anyone who wants to make their very own country!

In 2014, Jeremiah Heaton of Virginia traveled to Bir Tawil in order to proclaim the Kingdom of North Sudan in his words “to make his daughter a real princess”. This sounds really cute, except he now genuinely thinks it is his country and that anyone who goes there should ask his permission. His anger now makes me think he probably should have just got her a Barbie like a normal dad.

Sadly, he was not to be the sole claimant to Bir Tawil, and since then there have been claims by the Kingdom of Dixit, The Sultanate of BIrliand, and even the Kingdom of Bir Tawil with its mighty 14 citizens. Most claims to the territory have been made online and as you might imagine have not yet been recognised by the UN.

Can anyone claim the uninhabited Bir Tawil?

The very short answer, which I found out the hard way is that no you can’t.

Last year I let a group of intrepid travellers to Bir Tawil, with our aim being to raise the flag of the mighty Principality of Islandia, not to claim the land, but more in the interests of a cool trip to a very off-the-beaten-track place, and a little bit of PR.

It was then that we met the actual inhabitants of Bir Tawil, the Ababda tribe who claim Bir Tawil as their historical land.

A warm greeting from the Ababda tribe, photo by Gareth Johnson.

After we convinced them that we were not with King Heaton who they referred to as “that silly man” nor any of the other claimants to Bir Tawil, the Ababda tribe politely gave us their side of the story. They were mining their own land and did not take kindly to white folk rocking up with flags and claiming their land online, or otherwise. We listened politely and promised to relay the words of our magnanimous hosts with the rather large guns.

So, whilst officially no country might claim Bir Tawil, if you seriously want to make this piece of desert your dream Libertarian utopia you better be capable of fighting not only the Egyptians and Sudanese, but a heavily armed tribe who have lived here for centuries.

As is often the case, the truth about Bir Tawil really is more interesting than fiction, not that it will stop people claiming the last unclaimed piece of territory on earth….

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