Bir Tawil – Arabic for ‘tall well’ – an 800 square mile trapezoid-shaped tract of land wedged in between the southern borders of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the northern border of the Republic of the Sudan.
What makes Bir Tawil so fascinating is that it is seemingly so unwanted. It is unclaimed by both of its continental neighbours and, as a consequence, appears to resist, even exceed, the processes of expansion and enclosure that are so associated with the system of modern nation states. Until now, that is. As of 16 June 2014, Bir Tawil has been claimed – by the unlikely sounding Jeremiah Heaton of Abingdon, Virginia.
Heaton, we are led to believe, is a man who would do almost anything for his seven-year-old daughter, including fulfilling a promise that she could be ‘a real princess’. Eschewing the easy option of procuring a natty costume from a local royal outfitter, Heaton instead cast his geopolitical eye around the world in order to establish his own independent kingdom. He initially considered staking a claim to a portion of Antarctica until he “discovered” that sovereignty claims on the continent are suspended under the Antarctic Treaty System, agreed in 1959. The unclaimed Bir Tawil was a natural second choice. In a move discomforting for its similarity to past colonial possession-taking across Africa, Heaton travelled to Bir Tawil where, on 16 June 2014 (yes, you guessed it, his daughter’s seventh birthday) he planted a self-designed flag and ushered into being the ‘Kingdom of Northern Sudan’.
Jeremiah Heaton staking his claim to Bir Tawil (16 June 2014).
“It is not just a no man’s land, it is actively spurned. It appears to be the only place left on earth that is both habitable and unclaimed.”
The roots of this “unclaiming” date back more than a century to the publication, in 1899 and 1902 respectively, of two maps by British colonial cartographers that created two distinct versions of the border between Egypt and what was, at the time, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The 1899 iteration places Bir Tawil within Sudan but incorporates the economically productive pocket of land known as the Hala’ib Triangle within Egypt. The 1902 map reversed this territorial allocation by placing Bir Tawil within Egypt and the Hala’ib Triangle within Sudan.
The effect of this cartographic flip-flopping has been that neither Egypt nor Sudan has pursued an active claim over Bir Tawil because to do so may undermine their respective national claims to the Hala’ib Triangle. Bir Tawil, as a consequence, exists as a crack between two modern nation states and, as such, is evocative of one of the earliest appearances of No-Man’s Lands (nonesmanneslond) in the English language; from around 1320 when it was used in reference to the barren stretches of land—often used as waste or dumping grounds—between two provinces or kingdoms. While these medieval spaces were frequently economically unproductive and therefore unwanted by feudal Lords, the story of Bir Tawil is bound up in a more complex story of sovereignty claims and strategic ‘unclaiming’.
Bir Tawil was for thousands of years, until comparatively recently, actively used by members of the Ababda tribe in the pursuance of their nomadic lifestyle, culture and practices. Even after 1902, the Ababda continued to transgress – or, again, exceed – the newly-imagined lines of colonial cartography in order to seasonally graze camels, goats and sheep.
Satellite imagery reveals more contemporary evidence of occupation (albeit temporary) and movement within – and through – Bir Tawil. Tyre tracks point to frequent visitation – whether for the purpose of military patrols, tourism, or the transportation of goods or people. In any case, No Man’s Lands are rarely empty.
In the meantime, the world surely trembles in anticipation of 16th June 2015, the date when we will learn what Princess Emily requests and requires for her 8th birthday.