Jeremiah Heaton was playing with his daughter in their Abingdon, Va., home last winter when she asked whether she could be a real princess.
Heaton, a father of three who works in the mining industry, didn’t want to make any false promises to Emily, then 6, who was “big on being a princess.” But he still said yes.
“As a parent, you sometimes go down paths you never thought you would,” Heaton said.
Within months, Heaton was journeying through the desolate southern stretches of Egypt and into an unclaimed 800-square-mile patch of arid desert. There, on June 16 — Emily’s seventh birthday — he planted a blue flag with four stars and a crown on a rocky hill. The area, a sandy expanse sitting along the Sudanese border, morphed from what locals call Bir Tawil into what Heaton and his family call the “Kingdom of North Sudan.”
There, Heaton is the self- proclaimed king and Emily is his princess.
“I wanted to show my kids I will literally go to the ends of the earth to make their wishes and dreams come true,” Heaton said.
Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, told the Bristol Herald Courier last week that Heaton would need legal recognition from neighboring countries, the United Nations or other groups to have actual political control of the land.
Heaton, who ran for Congress out of Virginia’s 9th District in 2012 and lost, plans to reach out to the African Union for assistance in formally establishing the Kingdom of North Sudan and said that he is confident they will welcome him. Representatives from the Egyptian and Sudanese embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Heaton says his claim over Bir Tawil is legitimate. He argues that planting the flag — which his children designed — is exactly how several other countries, including what became the United States, were historically claimed. The key difference, Heaton said, is that those historical cases of imperialism were acts of war while his was an act of love.
“I founded the nation in love for my daughter,” Heaton said.
After he promised his daughter that she could be a princess, Heaton began searching online for unclaimed land the world over. When focusing his search on the Latin term “terra nullius,” meaning “land belonging to no one,” Heaton stumbled across information on Bir Tawil. He said a border dispute between Sudan and Egypt left the land, about halfway between where the Nile crosses into Sudan and Egypt’s coast along the Red Sea, as unclaimed territory.
This research led Heaton to seek permission from Egyptian authorities to travel to the remote, unpopulated plot of sand, explaining his cause. At first, even he was skeptical of his own plan.
“I was fearful of going into a toxic environment,” Heaton said.
Once he got permission, the former emergency services director for a local county headed to Egypt and spent a few days there before arriving at Bir Tawil. His perspective of the region quickly changed as he traveled.
“I cannot stress how kind and generous the Egyptian people are,” Heaton said.
The next step in Heaton’s plan is to establish positive relationships with Sudan and Egypt by way of converting his “kingdom” into an agricultural production center as his children, especially Emily, wanted.