Strange Borders with Medieval Origins

Are you a geography fan, excited about enclaves and exclaves? Here we take a look at six strange border areas whose origins date back to the Middle Ages.


Having well-defined borders was not a common feature in the Middle Ages. Frequently, a border area was fluid, changing with different lords and with different peoples mixing together. Such was the case between Spain and France, but in 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees settled the border between the two kingdoms. France gained some territory in this treaty, as Spain was forced to hand over all the villages from the northern part of the County of Cerdanya.

The location of Llívia inside of France and near Spain – image by Tschubby / Wikimedia Commons

However, one place remained with Spain, despite it being entirely within France. Llívia was exempt because during the Middle Ages it had been recognized as a town, not a village. Perhaps this was an oversight by the treaty negotiators, but the very next year they confirmed that Llívia indeed would remain with Spain, as it does to today.

Llívia is now home to about 1500 people and claims to be the home to Europe’s first pharmacy. According to Zoran Nikolic in his book The Atlas of Unusual Borders, “the inhabitants of Llívia often regard their town as the ‘birthplace’ of Catalonia, because their medieval ruler, Count Sunifred, ruling from Llívia itself, laid the foundations of the present-day Catalan identity.”


Campione d’Italia

Another enclave (a territory within a larger territory) can be found near the Italian-Swiss border. Campione d’Italia is entirely surrounded by the Canton of Ticino. This strip of land, which is about 2.6 square kilometres in area, had its own lord until the year 777, when the lord donated it to the Archbishopric of Milan. It later went to a monastery based in Milan and was still in their possession in 1512, when all the land around Campione was given to Switzerland.

Map showing the location of the Campione enclave near the centre. Image by Tschubby / Wikimedia Commons

It would not be until 1798 that the people of Campione got the opportunity to decide if they wanted to join Switzerland. They decided against it, and eventually they were included into the country of Italy. The decision worked well for the people of Campione d’Italia, as it has become a tourist centre for their Swiss neighbours, partly because they have a casino in the town.


This Austrian village is about seven square kilometres in area and is home to 300 people. It is not entirely within Germany, but it is only connected to Austria through a single point: the summit of Mt Sorgschrofen, which is 1600 metres tall. Therefore the only practical way of going into this pene-exclave.

Jungholz (red) as part of Reutte District (dark grey), surrounded by Germany (white). Image by Joschi Täubler / Wikimedia Commons

The reason for this geographic oddity goes back to June 24, 1342. On that day, Hermann Häselin, a farmer from Wertach in Germany, sold Jungholz to Heinz Lochpyler, an Austrian taxman from nearby Tannheim. It then became part of Austria.



This is perhaps one of the most complex border arrangements in the entire world. Baarle is located in The Netherlands, close to the border with Belgium. Zoran Nikolic explains the rest:

The town consists of two parts: the Dutch Baarle-Nassau and the Belgian Baarle-Hertog. The Belgian part includes more than twenty enclaves within the Dutch section of the town, while inside these Belgian enclaves there are approximately ten Dutch counter-enclaves. This means that the border intersects some of the streets several times, while some houses are partly in Belgium and partly in the Netherlands.

This strange situation dates back to a series of medieval land deals that were made between the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant. When the Netherlands and Belgium agreed to define their border at the Treaty of Maastricht in 1843, the lands of the Duke of Brabant became part of Belgium, while those of Breda stayed with the Netherlands.

Border between Belgium and the Netherlands at Baarle – image by Tos / Wikimedia Commons

All this makes it an interesting town to live in, where laws can differ every few feet. To determine if you lived in Belgium or The Netherlands is based on where your front door is. Many times people have actually moved the position of their front door to change countries – they usually did this so they pay less in taxes.

These first four examples all fall in the Schengen Area of Europe, which allows free movement between countries. This situation makes living in these enclaves fairly easy. Moreover, these territories have good relations with the countries they are inside of, and they can regularly make use of their services like schooling and hospitals.

Ceuta and Melilla

There are some parts of Spain that are located across the Mediterranean Sea in Africa. The port towns of Ceuta and Melilla are both exclaves which border Morocco. Ceuta was originally conquered by the Portuguese in 1415, and by 1640 had become part of the Spanish kingdom. Meanwhile, the people of Melilla revolted against the Kingdom of Fez in 1494 and sought the help of the Kingdom of Castile. This led to the Spanish occupation of the city.

Ceuta depictd in the 18th century – Wikimedia Commons

After Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 they demanded the return of Ceuta and Melilla as well as other bits of land controlled by Spain. However, the Spanish government and the residents of these two ports oppose any return to Moroccan control. This has led to ongoing tensions between the two countries and occasional problems along the border.


The Tomb of Suleyman Shah

A very unusual enclave exists in Syria, where Turkey has an enclave with no residents. Rather, it is the burial ground of a 13th-century rule.

Suleyman Shah (c. 1178–1236) was the Bey of the Kayı tribe, a Turkic people living in the region. He apparently drowned in the Euphrates River and was buried in a mausoleum along the river. Suleyman’s importance was that he was the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Zoran Nikolic writes:

The border between Turkey and Syria, a former French colony, was established by a peace treaty between Turkey and France in 1921. This agreement stipulated that the land upon which the Tomb of Suleyman Shah stood (Qal’at Ja’bar hill, with an area of less than one hectare), should remain Turkish, with a small Turkish guard of honour.

Another interesting aspect about this enclave is that it has been moved twice. The first time was in 1973 when the creation of Lake Assad threatened to flood this region. The mausoleum was moved 85 kilometres northward to an upstream part of the Euphrates River. It was moved again in 2015, during the Syrian Civil War, when members of the ISIS terrorist group threatened the mausoleum and its Turkish guards. It now sits just 180 metres from the Turkish border, but the government of Turkey states that they will eventually return it back to its previous location.

You can learn more about enclaves and exclaves in Zoran Nikolic’s book The Atlas of Unusual Borders, which is published by HarperCollins.