Bir Tawil and Khalaib – Africa’s Disputed Territories

Bir Tawil is the last unnecessary territory of Africa.

Who would have thought there were unnecessary territories on Earth. But there is. No, it’s not Antarctica, which the whole world wants to divide, but doesn’t yet know how. This is Bir Tawil, the last no man’s land on the planet.

For as long as humanity has existed, it has been fighting over territory. At all times, by hook or by crook, people have sought to take land from their neighbors. Nothing has changed now. Wars for territory and spheres of influence are fought all over the globe.

Now you will learn that there are vast areas in the world for which there are disputes. But not to get them for yourself, but to give them to your neighbor. To give.

It’s hard to imagine such a thing. The unforgettable phrase comes to mind: “The Tsar knows what he is doing! The state will not become poorer! Take it!”

Let’s digress a bit and remind you of the lifeless boulder in the Arctic Ocean, for which there has been an alcohol war between Canada and Greenland for years. There is a very interesting viscoplite confrontation going on over this tiny territory. Be sure to read about Hans Island and the Whiskey War.

As you can see, people are willing to fight over every piece of land. And then, lo and behold, dear neighbors, take away thousands of square kilometers of land. How did this happen? Let’s look at it in order. Bir Tawil is closely linked to another area in Africa called Khalaib. And while no one wants the first plot, everyone wants the second.

Bir Tawil and the Halaiba Triangle in Africa

Bir Tawil and the Halab Triangle on the Egypt-Sudan border

Where are Bir Tawil and Halaba?

First, let’s find out where these two pieces of land are located. These amazing, in terms of geopolitics, places lie right on the border of Egypt (in its southern part) and Sudan (respectively in the northern part of the country). You may recall that many countries in Africa have remarkably flat, straight borders. Indeed, in their time they were drawn literally with a ruler, referring to the meridians and parallels. The border between Egypt and Sudan runs along the 22nd parallel.

We will look at two disputed areas at once. Bir Tawil lies to the south of the border and Halab to the north.

What are Bir Tawil and Halahib?

Bir Tawil

The site is located in the desert part of Africa about 250 kilometers from the Red Sea coast. It is sometimes called the Bir Tawil Triangle, although it is shaped like an inverted trapezoid. It has an area of 2,060 km2 . The name Bir Tawil means “high well” from Arabic. Once there really was a source of fresh water, but now, unfortunately, it has long dried up.

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There is no permanent population here. This is practically a lifeless part of the planet. In its northern part there is Mount Jebel Tawil (459 m above sea level), and in the eastern part there is Mount Jebel Hagar al-Zarqa (662 m above sea level). As you understood, this area is of no interest to either Egypt or Sudan.

Bir Tawil is no man's land in Africa.

This is what Bir Tawil looks like, a no man’s land.

Halayb .

This disputed territory is 10 times larger than the previous one and has access to the Red Sea. Its better known name is the Halaib Triangle. The area is actually shaped like a triangle. Its area is 20 580 km 2 . Oil reserves have been found here, and in general, this area is of considerable value.

The history of the formation of the border between Egypt and Sudan

To understand why the dispute arose, it is necessary to delve into the history of the countries and the process of creating their border. The contentious situation dates back to 1899, when the United Kingdom, which had power in the area, signed an agreement with Egypt to govern Sudan jointly, creating a condominium called the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In fact, the British were in full control of Sudan, since Egypt was merely a British protectorate. In any case, it was decided that the border between Egypt and Sudan would run right along the 22nd parallel. But three years later, the British decided that the agreed boundary did not really reflect the actual use of the land by the indigenous tribes in the area. So they drew up a new boundary.

The area south of the 22nd parallel, according to the British, should be governed by Egypt because it contained the nomadic Ababda tribe, which had closer ties to Egypt than to Sudan. This is the territory of Bir Tawil.

But a much larger triangle of land, called Halayib, located north of the 22nd parallel near the Red Sea, was given over to Sudanese control because it was the homeland of the Beja people, who were culturally closer to Sudan.

Problems did not arise until Sudan gained independence in 1956. The new Sudanese government declared its national boundaries, established in 1902, making the Halaiba Triangle part of Sudan. Egypt, on the other hand, claimed its sovereignty in an 1899 treaty, which defined the border at the 22nd parallel. This makes the Halaiba triangle Egyptian.

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As you can see, there is a classic land ownership dispute here. Where did Bir Tawil go, and why should it be given to a neighbor?

The best part of the dispute

The way the border between the countries is created is such that each side can get either Bir Tawil or Halayb, but not both at once. Thus, the one who confirms the annexation of Bir Tawil to his territory must give up his claim to the larger and more lucrative Halayib triangle. Naturally, no country wants to miss out on this “piece of the pie.

This state of affairs creates an irrational conflict. We are not witnessing a struggle FOR the Haliba Triangle, but rather a struggle AGAINST Bir Tawil.

Neither Egypt nor Sudan wants to assert any sovereignty over Bir Tawil, because this would be a renunciation of their rights to the Halab Triangle.

Notably, the Egyptian maps show Bir Tawil as part of Sudan, while the Sudanese maps show it as part of Egypt. In fact, Bir Tawil belongs to no one – it is a kind of no man’s land or terra nullius.

Virtual kings of no man’s land

Since derelict will not lie idle for a long time, the unnecessary territory of Bir Tawil began to be claimed by people from all over the planet

The Kingdom of Northern Sudan

In the summer of 2014, American Jeremy Heaton made an unexpected claim to the territory of Bir Tawil. He planned to call the new state the Kingdom of North Sudan. Heaton not only claimed the territory on the Internet, but also came here and hoisted the flag of the new state. By the way, this flag was created by Jeremy’s family, and his daughter Emily was declared a princess of this country (though so far only by relatives and friends). It is interesting that if Heaton receives recognition from Sudan, Egypt, and the African Union, it is likely that a new state will appear on the map of our planet.

Jeremy Heaton is the king of Bir Tawil.

Jeremy Heaton is the American king of Bir Tawil.

Kingdom of Middle-earth

Perhaps under the impression of Tolkien’s characters, two Russian citizens, Dmitry Zhiharev and Mikhail Ronkainen, decided to proclaim Bir Tavil the Kingdom of Middle-earth. Naturally a flag was planted, this time a Russian flag.

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The Russian flag over the no man's land of Bir Tawil

The Russian flag over Bir Tavil

Other representatives of humanity are also making claims. In 2017, Indian businessman Suyash Dixit made his way to Bir Tawil and planted his flag.

Bir Tawil challenger from India

Indian claim to Bir Tawil

But none of these claims have been officially or otherwise recognized by any government or international organization.

Bir Tawil is no man’s land.

Bir Tawil

Border disputes are as old as the world. People have always fought over the right to control even small pieces of land, both at the level of diplomats and with weapons in hand. There are several examples on the planet of “no man’s land” to which neither state has sovereignty. There is a special term for them: terra nullius. The biggest example is Antarctica. But anyone has a claim to any territory, even if there is nothing on it but ice and penguins. It remains a no-man’s land only because of its special status. Except for one piece of land in Africa called Bir Tawil, which is so because everyone refuses to give it up.

Colonial Stories

No man’s land appeared on the map thanks to the bureaucratic manipulations of the British colonial administration, which once cut Africa and other continents. Bir Tawil translates from Arabic as “long spring,” the name of a water source that once existed here. Now it is no longer there, and the area was little suitable for life. The area is sometimes called the “triangle of Bir Tawil”, although on the map it is quite a clear irregular trapezoid.

The no man’s land is located in East Africa, on the border of Egypt and Sudan. At the beginning of the 19th century, Egypt was a huge and powerful province of the Ottoman Empire for 300 years, capable of conducting its own policy. Sudan, after a succession of formations and dissolutions of sultanates, was by this time filled with separate feudal principalities and nomadic tribes. The more organized Egyptians in 1819-1822 seized most of Sudan and made it their province.

Egypt itself was for a long time a prize fought over by the British and the French. In the mid-19th century France led the game. It worked with the Egyptians to restore the Suez Canal, known since antiquity. The construction took 10 years. Britain opposed the project because it undermined its privileged position in maritime trade affairs.

But still in 1869 the Suez Canal was launched. The British did not put up with it, and first they bought a controlling interest in the waterway from financially weakened France, and in 1882 they occupied Egypt altogether. It was in this way that England became the force that drew the East African frontiers.

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In 1899, the British wanted to get their hands on Sudan as well. The so-called Anglo-Egyptian condominium was established, with the British as the highest officials on Sudanese territory and the Egyptians as the middle-ranking officials. It was then that the border between Egypt and Sudan was drawn along the 22nd parallel. In 1902, the British decided to redraw the lines a bit before they had a chance to establish themselves in history. They allocated and handed over to the Sudanese administration the Halaiba triangle, the creation of which was justified by ensuring the integrity of the territories of the tribes inhabiting the border area. Egypt, on the other side of the line, has been allocated the same Bir Tawil, where the Bedouin Ababdeh, who lived on Egyptian land, traditionally grazed their flocks.

Bir Tawil

Take Not Give

Like all good things, the British colonial story in Africa came to an end one day. After both countries gained independence, Halaiba remained under Sudanese control and Bir Tawil under Egyptian control. Border disputes began almost immediately. This was not surprising because Bir Tawil is 2,060 square kilometers of waterless desert, while Halahiba is 2,080 square kilometers of fertile soil with access to the sea and significant minerals. Naturally, Egypt began to insist on a return to the 1899 borders, and Sudan began to rely on the 1902 partition. In 1958, President Nasser sent Egyptian troops to the Halaiba Triangle, but withdrew them. Egypt had better things to do – it had to fight Israel.

The issue of ownership of Halab and Bir Tawil was revisited in 1995. Egyptian soldiers then recaptured a part of Halab and in 2000 drove the Sudanese out of the entire area of the triangle. Claiming the recaptured lands automatically meant abandoning Bir Tawil, once squeezed by the British, which finally became unclaimed by anyone. Well, now no one wants to declare these desolate lands as their own, because such a step automatically means the transfer of rights to a much more economically promising province to the other side.

Sudan vs. Egypt

Unclaimed lands

Sometimes sources call Bir Tawil uninhabited, but this is not quite true. There is indeed no permanent population there, but the Ababde tribe still considers the land its own. Their representatives regularly roam the desert territory, as they did 200 years ago, only they are armed with Kalashnikovs along with bows and arrows. The Bedouins have learned to mine gold in Bir-Tawil – they dig mines and use dynamite of the same Russian manufacture.

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One should not expect serious development of the no man’s land in the near future. Big global companies are in no hurry to invest even in extraction of highly valuable minerals because of Bur-Tawil’s unsettled ownership. Egypt and Sudan are alternately plagued by wars and revolutions, so no one knows who will be strong enough to resolve territorial issues in the coming years.

In the meantime, Bir Tawil remains a unique piece of land, attracting the attention of adventurers with their virtual projects. In 2014, there was a story about an American farmer Jeremiah Heaton who came here in a jeep and stuck the flag of his invented kingdom of Northern Sudan in the sand. He declared himself sovereign of the land, and his seven-year-old daughter Emily a princess. The story became so virulent that even Disney began to voice plans to make a movie about the amazing family of self-proclaimed kings.

Jeremiah Heaton and the Kingdom of Northern Sudan

Jeremiah Heaton and the Kingdom of North Sudan

There is a claimant for no man’s land in Russia as well. It was a businessman Dmitry Zhiharev, who in 2015 declared a kingdom of Middle-earth on the territory of Bir-Tavil. He, too, reached the Egypt-Sudan border, left a Russian flag there, kept the geometric and now disputes Heaton’s claims. Zhiharev is trying to prove that his American rival has never been to Bir Tawil at all. Heaton has his own arguments – he has declared himself ruler before. King Dimitri invites everyone to see for themselves the presence of the tricolor over the desert lands. He found no trace of Heaton in Bir Tavil, and his pictures with the fantasy flag were called a production made in some other desert.

Dmitry Zhiharev and Middle-earth

Dmitry Zhikharev and Middle-earth

The claims of these and other self-appointed kings remain an extravagant pastime that does not attract the attention of any government or international organization. To enter the no man’s land even today can anyone with his flag, if, of course, to agree with the Egyptian military, because it is better to enter from the territory of a quieter and more familiar to tourists Egypt. Guests will also need reliable transportation and guides. The only roads in Bir Tawil – are wadis, that is, the beds of dried up rivers.

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