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What’s The Smallest Country In The World?

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What’s the smallest country in the world?

By area or population?

Both!

Vatican City.

WAS IT REALLY THAT EASY?

No.

The issue is defining what a country is, and some argue that the Vatican doesn’t fulfill that criteria.

The first problem is that it’s not a member of the United Nations. Technically, it’s not even a non-member state—that would be the Holy See, which the United Nations describes as “a nearly 2,000-year-old term that refers to the international sovereignty of the Pope, or leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican City State is the geographic property that ensures that sovereignty.”

But UN membership is not required to be called a “country.” Few would argue that Switzerland wasn’t a country before it joined the UN in 2002, or that Italy only came into existence when it joined in 1955.

One of the most common ways to define a country is by using the Montevideo Convention, which was signed between several North and South American countries in 1933. According to Article One of the Convention: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

Of these, the Vatican has a permanent population of around 1000 people (although, due to the odd way the Vatican is structured, only about half the population actually has Vatican citizenship), a clearly defined territory, a government, and has relations with many other states. As such, it probably is a country.

THAT WASN'T SO HARD ... RIGHT?

There is one group that makes the question a bit more complex: the Sovereign Order of Malta (SOM), also known as the Order of St. John.

Tracing its history to 1048, the Order was officially founded by Papal Bull in 1113 and took control of Malta in 1530. Then they lost Malta in 1798 and found themselves in Rome, where they occupied the Magistral Palace and Magistral Villa in Rome. In 2001 they came to an agreement with the Maltese government to take control of a fort in Malta.

All of this leads some to claim that they are the smallest nation in the world, with an area of at best a couple of buildings and a population generally stated as three people (although approximately 13,500 people are members and an additional 80,000 volunteer). It also has the rarest passport in the world, with only the Grand Master possessing a permanent passport, although 12 people also have temporary passports.

But it’s debated whether it truly can be considered a country. Going back to the UN argument, it has the same classification as entities like the Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee. A recent article in The Spectator argued that the order is essentially a religious order under the auspices of the more internationally recognized Holy See, and as such shouldn’t be considered a separate country.

The Spectator's argument boils down to the lack of a population, the lack of any territory to call its own (compared to the situation where the Holy See owns the Vatican), and a recent controversy surrounding the Order.

Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager was ousted by the order for his part in an alleged scheme to promote condom use in Myanmar. After the firing, von Boeselager appealed to Pope Francis, who appointed a five-member committee to investigate. After some fighting over sovereignty, the Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing (Fra’ is a title in the Order of Malta) was forced to resign and von Boeselager was reinstated.

The Spectator’s point in bringing this up is that “the Order’s claim to be independent has a dubious foundation—the Knights cannot be, for they owe ultimate allegiance to the Pope and the Vatican State. It follows therefore that it is a vassal and not a sovereign state.”

Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, so the Sovereign Order of Malta exists as an asterisk on smallest nation trivia.

WHAT IF I DON'T LIKE EITHER CLAIMANT?

In that case, the smallest country by area is Monaco and the smallest by population is Nauru, both full members of the UN and undeniably countries.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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