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Nobody's Land: Bir Tawil, Egypt/Sudan 📍
The only remaining big area in the world claimed by no government (📍Bonkers Borders Series)
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In this post:
First Edition Hello!
This Week’s Video & Transcript
BTS: Every Guy That’s Planted a Flag
Cut For Time: Why Terra Nullius Sucks
Extra Credit: The Other Places No One Wants
Welcome to the first edition of the enhanced Map Nerd newsletter! I’m super excited to expand on the video stories I’ve been posting to social platforms.
TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube Shorts are amazing ways to explore the wildly diverse universe of people and places out there, but they’re designed to highlight a single perspective at a time. The places and concepts we cover on Map Nerd are far more complex, with tons of fascinating things about them. There’s always other angles and topics on a story that I make a choice not to dive into for the video… because they can’t be, and aren’t intended to be, complete audits of a particular place or concept. This is not an academic class.
So, I’m going to use this newsletter / blog / substack (what do you call it?) to add to and expand on a lot of the interesting, strange, cool bits surrounding the topics that I noticed while researching for the video, but “left on the cutting room floor.”
All that said: Map Nerd, including this newsletter, is meant to spark fascination with our world by revealing interesting things on the map in a fun, casual, digestible way. It’s NOT meant to be a scholarly source or cover every aspect of everything. I encourage you to dive deeper, read further, learn more if something strikes you - I guarantee there is a lot more on everything out there. Have fun exploring!
This Weeks Video:
Nobody’s Land: Bir Tawil
Here is the video story plus complete transcript below it if you’d prefer to read it. If not, just skip it and go to the next section!
Every nation wants more land. That’s why wars start (including a recent one). But, sometimes, in very rare circumstances, there’s land that nobody wants. Right now, that’s Bir Tawil – the last big territory on earth that remains unclaimed by any recognized country.
The concept is called Terra nullius (Latin for “nobody’s land”) and it’s a term used to justify a country’s claim to a place. The idea being that if there was no sovereign state there before, it’s terra nullius so a state that occupies it can claim it.
Obviously, we can have a long debate about how it’s usually not really “nobody’s land,” It’s somebody’s, just somebody that historically didn’t seem to count for the ones that made up the rule.
Today, almost every corner of the planet is claimed as part of one, or several, nations. But, amazingly, there still is terra nullius.
The most glaring example is Bir Tawil on the border between Egypt and Sudan. This is an 800 square mile territory that neither Egypt nor Sudan say is there’s.
And for good reason: Back in 1899 the UK and Egypt jointly controlled the Sudan region, except really the UK did. (then known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (it was actually a rare example of countries that share, for those of you who saw that video, but in reality the Brits had the power).) They agreed on a straight line border at the 22nd parallel to define the two regions. (“Political Boundary”)
It was a clean line, but a little too clean because culturally Sudanese groups inhabited a big area above the line, and culturally Egyptian groups used an area below the line.
So in 1902 the British moved the administrative border lines to account for what was more in line with the people on the ground.
That “tweak” added a huge 8000 sq mile swath called the Hala’ib Triangle under the control of Sudan, and gave the 10x smaller Bir Tawil to Egypt (how generous).
Since then, Egypt and Sudan, which became a sovereign state in 1956, have never agreed to the lines. They both want the Hala’ib Triangle. and Why not? Its large, has sea access, offshore oil, and a good amount of mineral wealth.
So, Egypt only recognizes the original straight line border whereas Sudan only recognizes the revised administrative border. That leaves Bir Tawil as purposefully unclaimed by both. If either one claims Bir Tawil, they’d be recognizing a border line they don’t want to, and they’d lose the Hala’ib Triangle.
The terra nullius status of Bir Tawil has prompted some people to think they can be king. Several individuals, including this guy, this guy, and this guy, have traveled there and planted flags to declare their own nations. Jeremiah Heaton is perhaps the most famous, he went there to grant his daughter’s wish to become a real-life princess.
Today, Bir Tawil isn’t known to have any permanent population but the Halaib Triangle has 10 to 30,000. Egypt has been controlling the Triangle since the early 90s and they’ve been actively building infrastructure to solidify their hold on it. That said, there’s no sign Sudan is backing down – their recent government oil maps clearly offer that area up for bidding.
Behind The Scenes: Every Guy That’s Planted a Flag
It takes a special kind of person to make yourself king
In researching for the video, it was difficult to find photos of Bir Tawil itself. I typically like to have many options and different perspectives in visuals of a place. It’s important to me that viewers get a “good” sense of a place, especially if it’s not well known.
But for Bir Tawil, visuals were tough. Since it’s such a remote place in a part of the world that often finds itself amid crisis, there’s not hordes of people going there and taking photos for Google Street View.
So, I was limited to the photos of the few people who have been there (and took photos to prove it). That inevitably launched me down a rabbit hole of information about the “brave” individuals who set out to claim their own country in the middle of the Nubian Desert:
Jeremiah Heaton from Virginia, USA // Kingdom of North Sudan (June 2014): Jeremiah Heaton is perhaps the most well-known of the “kings” of Bir Tawil. He’s been interviewed and covered in the media many times, and he is the subject of a 2022 documentary called “King of North Sudan” (no I haven’t seen it yet, but I intend to). That’s probably because his story, as he tells it, is the most intriguing. He says he traveled to Bir Tawil to fulfill his daughters wish that she become a real live princess. This earnest intent made headlines all over the world, and, whether intentionally or not (imo: probably intentionally), somehow gave Heaton a psuedo credibility to take it a bit more seriously than most others. He has since engaged in conversations with large corporations and governments to attempt to make something real of his nation. He insists (in everything I’ve read, at least) that his intention is to exploit the land for the good of the world, allowing the sort of exploration and technological progress that other places heavily regulate.
Jeremiah Heaton’s “King of North Sudan” documentary trailer:
Dmitry Zhikarev from Siberia, Russia // Kingdom of Middle Earth (Dec 2014): Dmitry Zhikarev is an amateur radio enthusiast who was determined to transmit a radio signal from a place no one had been before. In the world of competitive amateur radio, you get more points for transmitting (is that what they call it? forgive me if not) from more remote locations. Apparently, Sudan makes up the “34th zone", which is coveted as very difficult. So, Zhikarev set out to go there, and did so in Dec 2014, transmitting a radio signal and planting a flag. He disputes Jeremiah Heaton’s claims and theorizes that Heaton may have actually never traveled there.
Jack Shenker from London, UK // (not sure if he named it) (2011): Jack Shenker is a writer based in London and Cairo. He wrote a fantastic article about Bir Tawil in the Guardian in 2016, revealing, with photo evidence, that he had in fact traveled there before the media frenzy over Jeremiah Heaton. His intentions may not have been to declare himself king of a new kingdom, but he’s certainly the most insightful about the place.
Dwain Coward from London, UK // Kingdom of Bir Tawil (2021): Dwain Coward is a London attorney who recently laid claim to the territory. He has purportedly established a business in Sudan and organized a mail route with locals to communicate with the nomadic groups living in the area. He’s made himself a throne, robe, and crown, but despite the pomp says his vision is to help the people of the land. He is “progressing” toward development that would bring advances and prosperity to those that live in the region.
Suyash Dixit from Indore, India // Kingdom of Dixit (2017): Suyash Dixit is an Indian tech entrepreneur who was in Cairo for a conference. Apparently, he learned about Bir Tawil, and with a love of exploring and Game of Thrones, he rented a car and traveled there to declare his own kingdom.
There are rumors of others… If you’ve heard of someone else, let me know!
Cut For Time: Why Terra Nullius Sucks
It’s not that it’s a bad word, but it has come to illicit cringes
The concept of terra nullius is fraught with controversy and an ugly history. There’s a lot more to it than just being a label for “nobody’s land.”
The idea is not new, and probably dates back to the Romans. They had a similar term called res nullius (“nobody’s thing”), which essentially meant things that were not “owned” by others could be acquired by anyone that came along and seized it.
Res nullius was argued by explorers and scholars from the 1500s through the 1800s, particularly in the context of colonization and conquest by Europeans of places outside of Europe. Interestingly, the concept was not only used to justify the conquest of places, but there were many historical figures who argued against it: saying res nullius did not apply to places where there were already inhabitants. (Obviously, those arguments fell flat in the grand scheme of things, because… well… colonization happened).
Apparently the “revised” idea of terra nullius (sort of like an updated res nullius but only applying to land) really only became a thing in the 1900s. Particularly, international law started to use the term in the 1970s when adjudicating territorial disputes.
Now, terra nullius, as a word, has come to represent a justification for colonization, imperialism and, in a broader sense, classical western culture demeaning other native cultures.
If you google “terra nullius” today, you usually get two big themes:
Something about Bir Tawil (and the other current “terra nullius” places - more on that below)
Australian-Aboriginal relations. The Australian media tends to use the term often when talking about aboriginal justice and treatment of other Polynesian islander groups.
Extra Credit: The Other Places No One Wants
Other Current Terra Nullius’s’s…
In the video, I made sure to say that Bir Tawil is “the last big territory on Earth that remains unclaimed by any recognized country…”
Starting from the latter: I had to mention “recognized” country because, as I just pointed out above, there are plenty of regular joe’s who have claimed Bir Tawil as their own.
I made sure to say “big” for a different, and more important (imo) reason: there ARE other potential terra nullius areas still existing!
These areas are fascinating in their own right, and probably deserve their own video, but I’ll mention them quickly here so you can explore more right now if you want to:
Antarctica / Marie Byrd Land: Technically the whole of Antarctica is the territory of no individual nation and administered by a treaty among 55 of the world’s nations (I talk about that a bit in the vid about living in Antarctica, if you want to learn more) That said, many nations have already staked out a claim (usually in the shape of a pizza slice) in advance of a time when the Treaty either dissolves or falls apart. But, there are areas of Antarctica, particularly Marie Byrd Land, that have NOT been claimed in advance. So therefore, those areas are real-deal terra nullius, especially since there’s no evidence that it’s ever been permanently inhabited at all! Marie Byrd Land is huge: over 600,000 square miles. However, Antarctica is usually sidelined as a technicality when discussing terra nullius because it’s not considered a true “inhabitable” place.
Gornja Siga / Liberland: There is also a small patch (3 sq mi) of land tucked in a bend of the Danube River between Serbia and Croatia called Gornja Siga. Or, alternatively, it’s called Liberland by the Czech politician who claimed to conquer for his own nation. The Danube is the traditional border between Serbia and Croatia, but the river has tweaked its course over the centuries. Serbia recognizes the river, wherever its course goes, as the border. Croatia, however, believes the border to be the original lines set up in the 19th century, regardless of where the river is now. That leaves a few small pockets of area on the east bank of the river as disputed, and one pocket on the west bank of the river - Gornja Siga - that neither country claims.
End Note: That’s it for now! I hope you enjoyed learning more about Bir Tawil. This is the first of what I expect will be an ever-evolving newsletter, so I’d love to hear from any of you on suggestions/comments on what you’d like to see/read in the future!
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