Ask HISTORY

Vatican City at night

What is the smallest country in the world?

It may be difficult to imagine, but there is a country in the world smaller than New York City’s Central Park and one with a population smaller than a typical high-school class. Based on landmass, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, measuring just 0.2 square miles, almost 120 times smaller than the island of Manhattan. Situated on the western bank of the Tiber River, Vatican City’s two-mile border is landlocked by Italy. The official seat of the pope of the Catholic Church since 1377, Vatican City was not declared an independent state until the Lateran Treaty of 1929. After years of power struggles between popes and the political leaders of Italy over who could claim supreme authority in the region, Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI agreed to the Lateran Pacts on February 11, 1929, which created the independent state of Vatican City for the Catholic Church in exchange for the pope’s recognition of the Kingdom of Italy. Today, nearly 75 percent of the Vatican’s citizens are members of the clergy.

In comparing countries by population, however, Vatican City loses out to the Pitcairn Islands for the title of smallest country. Compared to the 800-850 residents who live in Vatican City, the population of the Pitcairn Islands has fluctuated between 40 and 60 inhabitants over recent years. This British territory, located in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Peru and New Zealand, is composed of four islands, but Pitcairn is the only one that is inhabited. Pitcairn’s tiny population is also noteworthy due to its peoples’ heritage: They are descended from Tahitians and the mutineers on the Bounty. Fletcher Christian and eight other mutineers fled to Tahiti after their revolt at sea, but when hostilities arose with their new neighbors and they began to fear arrest, they escaped to the deserted island of Pitcairn to hide from British authorities, bringing a handful of Tahitians with them. The British rediscovered the islands in 1791 during a search for the mutineers, and they were named a British colony in 1838. Though the population has swelled since then to a whopping 223 just before World War II, the current population stands at about 50.

Considering the 50 smallest countries by landmass are each less than one-quarter of the size of Rhode Island and the 50 smallest countries by population are each about one-sixth the size of Washington, D.C., it really is a small world after all.

Image: Vatican City at night (Credit: iStockphotos.com)
Categories: Demographics, Geography, Vatican City