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Bir Tawil: The Land No Country Wants

Wedged between the borders of Egypt and Sudan is a small parcel of land that is truly unique in this world. It is one of the last unclaimed land on earth. Neither country wants it, and it is easy to see why. This 2,000-square-kilometer trapezoidal piece of land called Bir Tawil lies in one of the most desolate regions of North Africa. The region is mostly sand and rock, with no roads or permanent inhabitants or natural resources. Claiming this region would contribute nothing to either country’s economy. But that’s only half the story.

Lying adjacent to Bir Tawil is another much larger triangle of land—Hala'ib—which is also sand and rock, but it borders the Red Sea and is hence more valuable. Now both Egypt and Sudan want Hala'ib, but the way the border was created between them, each country can have either Bir Tawil or Hala'ib, but not both. Whoever claims Bir Tawil thus would have to relinquish their claim to the larger and more lucrative Hala’ib Triangle, which neither country wants to lose.

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The peculiar situation started out in 1899 when the United Kingdom, who held authority in the area, signed an agreement with Egypt to jointly administer Sudan, creating a condominium called the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In reality, British had full control over Sudan since Egypt was merely a protectorate of Britain. In any case, it was agreed that the border between Egypt and Sudan would run straight along the 22nd parallel. But three years later, the British decided that the agreed boundary did not truly reflect the actual use of the land by the indigenous tribes in the area. So they drew up a new boundary.

A small mountain just south of the 22nd parallel, the British decided, should be administered by Egypt since it was home to the nomadic Ababda tribe, which had stronger links with Egypt than Sudan. This became Bir Tawil.

Meanwhile, a much-larger triangle of land, named Hala’ib, located north of the 22nd parallel right next to the Red Sea, was handed over to Sudanese control since this was the homeland of the Beja people who were culturally closer to Sudan.

Problems didn’t arise until after Sudan achieved independence in 1956. The new Sudanese government declared its national borders as those stipulated in the second proclamation, making the Hala’ib triangle a part of Sudan. Egypt, on the other hand, asserted that this was meant to be a temporary administrative jurisdiction, and that sovereignty had been established in the 1899 treaty, which set the border at the 22nd parallel. This made the Hala’ib triangle Egyptian.

While border conflicts are incredibly common, what makes this particular conflict unique is not the tussle over the Hala’ib triangle itself, but rather the impact it has had on the smaller patch of land south of the 22nd parallel, the area known as Bir Tawil. Neither Egypt nor Sudan wants to assert any sovereignty over Bir Tawil, for doing so would be to renounce their rights to the Hala’ib triangle. On Egyptian maps, Bir Tawil is shown as belonging to Sudan. On Sudanese maps, it appears as part of Egypt. In practice, Bir Tawil is widely believed to belong to no one—a no man’s land.

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Several people have tried to claim Bir Tawil, like Dmitry Zhikharev and his friend Mikhail Ronkainen who is seen here raising the Russian flag over Bir Tawil in 2014. Photo credit: Dmitry Zhikarev

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This American dad, Jeremiah Heaton, has also tried to claim Bir Tawil by planting a flag his family designed.

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Others are getting on with the act too. An Indian businessman, Suyash Dixit, reached Bir Tawil last year and planted his own flag. Photo credit: Suyash Dixit

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