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The world's most unwanted territory - Bir Tawil

By Edited Apr 29, 2015 0 0

Bir Tawil (which means "water well" in Arabic) is a tract of land consisting mainly of sand and rocks, sandwiched between Egypt and Sudan. Bir Tawil covers an area of 2069 sq km (795 sq mil) and is shaped like a trapezoid. However, neither country wants to claim this piece of land, making it the world's most unwanted territority. Its geographical coordinates are 21°52′14″N 33°44′14″E / 21.87056°N 33.73722°
Bir Tawil(72275)


In the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium for Sudan Agreement of 1899, the British drew up the 1,240 km border between Egypt and Sudan along the 22nd parallel, stretching from Libya to the Red Sea. Subsequently, in 1902, the British made some amendments to the border. First, a small area northern of the Nile River, known as the Wadi Halfa Salient, was transferred to Sudan, given that the villages there were more accessible from the Sudanese side. (Althought Egypt later laid claim to this territory, the issue became a moot one when Egypt ended up submerging these villages with the construction of the Aswan Dam.) Second, the Bir Tawil region, east of the Wadi Halfa Salient and south of the 22nd parallel, was transferred to the Egyptian side as it was the grazing lands for the Ababda tribe in Egypt. Third, the Halaib Triangle, a 20,500 sq km area north of the 22nd parallel, was handed over to Sudan as the tribes residing there were based in Sudan.
Both Egypt and Sudan became independent countries in 1922 and 1956 respectively. 

Current status

To this day, Egypt and Sudan have yet to resolve their disagreements over Bir Tawil and Halaib. In fact, this awkward border issue had remained dormant until 1992, when a Canadian oil company asked the Sudanese government for permission to explore for oil in the Halaib region. Upon receiving news of the prospects of oil there, the Egyptian government quickly imposed administrative control of the land. In 2010, an attempt was made by the Sudanese government to gain access to Halaib region, but was denied by Egypt.

Hence, the crux of the border problem now lies in Halaib over which both countries claim sovereignty. Given the strategic advantage of Halaib which is bigger and borders the Red Sea, both countries are choosing to interpret the historical agreements in their own preferred way to claim the region. Egypt prefers to stick to the 1899 Agreement, while Sudan chooses to adopt the 1902 amendments.

However, since the claim of Bir Tawil (the smaller of the two areas) would undermine its claim to the larger one, neither country is willing to claim control over the former. Moreover, neither country is interested in Bir Tawil as there is simply nothing there, except sand and dry mountains. It is said that a well was once built inside Bir Tawil, but no one is sure what happened to it after that.

This state of affairs has since relegated Bir Tawil to the status of terra nullius, which is defined in international law as "land that has never been subject to the soverignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished sovereignty". In layman's terms, it is "no man's land".

Nonetheless, for now, Egypt has asserted itself as the de facto administrator of both areas, until the issue is resolved.

Bir Tawil (satellite photo)

What is there at Bir Tawil?

The land is completely uninhabited, besides some nomadic shepherds from the Ababda tribe who might venture to the abovementioned water well. There are no permanent settlements, buildings, roads or fences there. 

With its arid subtropical climate, the land is not suitable for agriculture. In addition, most of the natural desert vegetation is still intact. The landscape is mostly covered with sparse vegetation. 

Found in the northern part of Bir Tawil is Jabal Tawil, a mountain with an average elevation of 459 metre above sea level. To the east is Jabal Hajar az Zarqa, a height of 662 meters. To the south is Wadi Tawil (or valley).

The nearest town with a population of more than 50,000 is about half a day's journey by local transportation. 

As mentioned above, the Ababda tribe live as desert nomads who herd camels and goats in the desert of southern Egypt. They may also harvest wild plants with medicinal value for sale in market towns. By the 1920s, most Ababda have settled down in towns in the Nile Valley, while only venturing into the desert when necessary. Many Ababda men also worked in mines in Egypt.

For Bir Tawil, August is its warmest month with an average temperature of 38.4 °C. January is its coldest with an average temperature of 10.6 °C at night. The area has temperate cold and warm seasons, like winters and summers. Its rainfall and other precipitation have no distinct peak month. 

Unlike Halaib which has access to the Red Sea, petroleum reserves, more inhabitable land and a sizeable population, the landlocked Bir Tawil can be described as an unwanted orphan. Indeed, until both Egypt and Sudan resolve their territorial dispute, it looks like Bir Tawil's status as the world's most unwanted land will remain for a long time.

Bir Tawil (scenery)

"Claiming" Bir Tawil

Notwithstanding Egypt and Sudan's reluctance to claim this piece of barren land, the advent of the Internet has allowed many to learn of its unwanted status, who have since come forth to lay claim to it. Some have declared themselves king of Bir Tawil and written to the governments of Egypt and Sudan, though whether the latter responded or not remains unclear.

There are also suggested designs for a national flag for the "Kingdom of Bir Tawil", one of which is a white flag with a blue disk in the centre. The white colour represents peace and neutrality of the kingdom, while the blue disk represents the water well found inside it. Another has striped colours and a picture of a well.

It also has several websites and Facebook pages (one even with its own constitution, foreign policy proclamations and call for new citizens). 



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  1. "Bir Tawil." Bir Tawil. 27/11/2011 <Web >
  2. "Jabal Tawil." Chinci World Atlas. 27/11/2011 <Web >

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