If Jeremiah Heaton, Suyash Dixit and Dmitry Zhikharev walk into a bar, they could spark off World War III. That is because the American, Indian and Russian all claim to be the rightful owners of Bir Tawil, a pocket of unclaimed desert land between the borders of Egypt and Sudan. Measuring 1,290 sq km, it belongs to no country and has no registered population.
While Heaton calls it the Kingdom of North Sudan, Dixit christened it the Kingdom of Dixit earlier this month. Zhikharev calls it the Kingdom of Middle Earth because he thinks that every JRR Tolkien fan should have a real kingdom for themselves.
Border disputes between Egypt and Sudan dating back to 1902 resulted in neither country wanting to claim Bir Tawil. Several people and organisations have since tried to stake claim on the terra nullis – or nobody’s land – but no international organisation has recognised these attempts.
The latest to join the club was Dixit, an Indore-based businessman. Dixit was in Egypt in early November to attend a software developers’ conference. On November 7, he wrote on his Facebook page that he travelled to Bir Tawil. He claimed to have reached the place from southern Egypt, after travelling for six hours in a car through dangerous territory where the Egyptian military has orders to “shoot on sight”. Upon reaching Bir Tawil, he said he planted sunflower seeds in the desert, and proceeded to call it the “Kingdom of Dixit”. He announced himself as its prime minister, and made his father its president.
While Dixit basked in the glory of instant viral fame in India, Virginia-based Jeremiah Heaton disputed his claims on Twitter. Heaton had visited Bir Tawil in 2014 and claimed it as the “Kingdom of North Sudan”. At present, among other things, he is attempting to set up a free speech server farm on Bir Tawil that would allow the exchange of information without government interference.
Heaton wrote on Twitter that the Indian businessman could not possibly have made the journey from the Egyptian city of Abu Simbel to Bir Tawil, as he claimed he did in his Facebook post, since both places are separated by Lake Nasser, which cannot be crossed since there are no ferry services or a bridge.
Heaton and Dixit then spoke to each other privately. On November 16, both men took to Twitter to announce they would work together for the development of Bir Tawil. Heaton also deleted his tweets accusing Dixit of lying.
The Russian claim
The next day, Zhikharev, a Russian radio professional and globe trotter, wrote a letter to the Russian website TJournal stating that both Heaton and Dixit faked their visits to Bir Tawil. In his letter, Zhikharev claimed that Dixit, like Heaton before him, took photographs of himself in the desert in Egypt, near Bir Tawil, and passed them off as proof that he had visited the terra nullis. He said Dixit should offer geotagged photographs as evidence that he had actually been there.
Zhikharev claims to have visited Bir Tawil in December 2014, shortly after Heaton says he did, following which he named the land “Kingdom Mediae Terrae” or the Kingdom of Middle Earth, and announced he was its king.
Speaking to Scroll.in, Zhikharev said that Heaton could not have received permission from the Egyptian Army to travel to Bir Tawil as he claimed he did. Claiming that he had spoken to the head of the Army in Egypt, Zhikharev said: “They knew about Heaton’s claim but laughed and said that there is absolutely no way anyone would give them permission to go there [Bir Tawil]. It’s like giving an American permission to travel to Pakistan from Indian border control.”
Zhikharev also pointed to discrepancies in Heaton’s account of his conquest of Bir Tawil. “Every article that published his achievement was stating that it took him 14 hours on camels to travel to Bir Tawil [from El Shalateen in Egypt],” said Zhikharev. “But it is a 214 km-long straight line through the mountains. Camels should have been walking on the air [literally, flying] at 16 km per hour.”
Zhikharev insisted again that Dixit and Heaton should at least be able to prove their claims through geo-tagging technology as he says he has done himself.
Dixit, who has joined Heaton in helping him set up his server farm in Bir Tawil, brushed off Zhikharev’s allegations as nonsensical.
Heaton told Scroll.in that it was Zhikharev who was lying about his trip. “The only news agencies to really cover his efforts were Russian news outlets,” he said.
Zhikharev, however, is confident that Dixit and Heaton will not be visiting Bir Tawil any time soon. He said that he is setting up an amateur radio transmitter in the area and that he is working with a Russian geological company based in Sudan to drill water in Bir Tawil. “After we will have water available from the well, we will discuss further plans,” Zhikharev said.