Bir Tawil is the last unclaimed land on earth: The area of land is ruled by no state, inhabited by no permanent residents and governed by no laws.
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 have the legal status of terra nullius – “nobody’s land” – and there is nothing else quite like it on the planet.
Neither country wants it, and here’s why. The 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. And that’s not all.
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.
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.
By the early 1990s, when a Canadian oil firm signalled its intention to begin exploration in Hala’ib and the prospect of substantial mineral wealth being found in the region gained momentum, the disagreement was no longer academic. Egypt sent military forces to “reclaim” Hala’ib from Sudan, and despite fierce protests from Khartoum – which still considers Hala’ib to be Sudanese and even tried to organise voting there during the 2010 Sudanese general election – it has remained under Cairo’s control ever since.
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.
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
An American, Jeremiah Heaton, has also tried to claim Bir Tawil by planting a flag his family designed.
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
How to get to Bir Tawil
According to theguardian, to get there, you have two choices.
The first is to fly to the Sudanese capital Khartoum, charter a jeep, and follow the Shendi road hundreds of miles up to Abu Hamed, a settlement that dates back to the ancient kingdom of Kush. Today it serves as the region’s final permanent human outpost before the vast Nubian desert, twice the size of mainland Britain and almost completely barren, begins unfolding to the north.
There are some artisanal gold miners in the desert, conjuring specks of hope out of the ground, a few armed gangs, which often prey upon the prospectors, and a small number of military units who carry out patrols in the area and attempt, with limited success, to keep the peace. You need to drive past all of them, out to the point where the occasional scattered shrub or palm tree has long since disappeared and given way to a seemingly endless, flat horizon of sand and rock – out to the point where there are no longer any landmarks by which to measure the passing of your journey.
Out here, dry winds often blow in from the Arabian peninsula, whipping up sheets of dust that plunge visibility down to near-zero. After a day like this, then a night, and then another day, you will finally cross into Bir Tawil, an 800-square-mile cartographical oddity nestled within the border that separates Egypt and Sudan. Both nations have renounced any claim to it, and no other government has any jurisdiction over it.
The second option is to approach from Egypt, setting off from the country’s southernmost city of Aswan, down through the arid expanse that lies between Lake Nasser to the west and the Red Sea to the east. Much of it has been declared a restricted zone by the Egyptian army, and no one can get near the border without first obtaining their permission.