What's in the Capital? 



Capital cities play an important role in signalling a country’s political, cultural, and economic power. As a result, capitals are deliberately chosen to showcase elements of national pride, be it through population strength, geographic significance, or infrastructure development. 


By simple definition, national capital cities are the seat of the national government within the country.  This role can vary widely across different capital cities, but in general, capitals are unique from other cities because they provide a special site for the concentration, administration and representation of political power.  Which of these three roles is preeminent for the capital depends on the observer.  For political scientists, the capital is the seat of power and administration. For the economist, it is the location of a disproportionate share of public sector employment. (For the macro-economist, it is often where trade, industrial and monetary policy is made). For the architect, it is the lucrative site of representative buildings, monuments and parks.


This is not only the location of the central authorities, the centre for managing political processes in the country, but also the most important political institution that forms, reproduces and transforms its statehood, primarily influencing the political-territorial structure, the system of relations between "centre- regions" and the regional state policy. This understanding of the capital city raises the question of why the political and administrative structure of the state involves the allocation of a capital city, i.e. in other words, the inevitable division of the country into the centre and regions, the formation of potentially conflicting social groups: residents of the centre and residents of the periphery? And another question arising is what functions such a division performs and how it affects the nature of political processes in the state as a whole


Historically the economic centre of a state or region has often also been the seat of political power. Capital cities usually attracted people whose skill set lent itself to politics or administration like lawyers, scientists, bankers, and journalists. In Medieval Europe, in states like ancient Babylon, Athens, London, and Prague, it was not uncommon to have an itinerant, or wandering, capital. In some cases, the city in question was not only the political and economic capital but like in Constantinople and Rome, also the fulcrum of the state religion.


Some nation-states have multiple capitals while others have one city as the capital but with most government agencies located elsewhere. In Chile, for example, Santiago is the official capital, but the National Congress meets in Valparaíso. Countries like France and Nauru do not recognise official capitals although, for the former, Paris is considered the de facto capital. Some tiny countries, which function more as city-states, like Monaco and Singapore, have the country itself as the capital.


Campbell Scott defines the different types of capitals, from classic capitals (Madrid, Paris, Mexico City) to relocated capitals (Ankara from Istanbul) to constructed or planned capitals (New Delhi, Brasilia) to federal capitals (Canberra, Ottawa) to split capitals (Amsterdam and the Hague) to archipelago capitals (Tokyo on Honshu) to capitals with unique jurisdictions (Washington DC). 


The residents of such city people get emotionally attached and will be distressed if they came to know the capital of state or nation is being changed to some other place. (People living in Mumbai will echo this and will remember the political agitation against even such a thought or a proposal).


But if capitals are so important, then why do countries relocate or change capital


Most countries in the world have changed their capital city. There is one glaring example which I will mention at the end of the article. And barring that exception, even countries like America, England and European-African-Asian countries, have changed their capital. Many countries have changed it on more than one occasion. 


According to Scott, capitals are often relocated due to wars, revolutions, invasions or annexations. He cites an early example from 771 BC in which China’s Zhou dynasty was forced to move capitals from Hao to Luoyang after barbarians attacked and destroyed the former.


In America for example, Washington DC was chosen as the country’s capital in 1790, following a compromise between urbanised northern states and agrarian southern slave states to share power. Similarly, in Australia, Melbourne and Sydney, the two largest cities, were both competing to become the capital, and neither was willing to cede ground. As a compromise, in 1913, Canberra, situated between Melbourne and Sydney, was designated as the new capital city of Australia.


In 1834, four years after gaining independence, Athens was made the capital of Greece with the hopes that doing so would conjure the glory of Ancient Greece. 


More recently, however, capitals have been strategically relocated due to demographics. This phenomenon has been particularly true when the “vagaries of nation-building required the choice of a geographically neutral location, situated between the most significant constituent territories”. Establishing a capital in neutral territory, he states, would “help rectify demographic imbalances rooted in country’s particular geography”. The nations of the post-colonial era, have also either changed or renamed capitals to assert their independence from their colonisers.


A few examples of the change in the capital are:- 

Nigeria - Lagos to Abuja in 1991. Myanmar - Rangoon (Yangon) in 2005, to a then-unconstructed site officially named the following year as Naypyidaw. Russia - Russia has switched between Moscow and St Petersburg. St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, served as the country's capital from 1712-1918, before the government reverted to Moscow. Pakistan - In 1959 Pakistan decided to move its capital from the southern city of Karachi to Rawalpindi to Islamabad. Brazil - Brazil commissioned a purpose-built and centrally located city, Brasilia, to replace Rio de Janeiro as its capital in the 1950s. Kazakhstan - Astana, a planned city that became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. It took over from Almaty, still the country's commercial centre and largest population centre. Ivory Coast - Ivory Coast's economic capital and biggest city is Abidjan. But in the 1960s, post-independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny made plans to establish a new capital located at his birthplace. Yamoussoukro was made capital in 1983. Tanzania - Plans for Tanzania's new capital, Dodoma, were completed in the mid-1980s by the US architect James Rossant. (However, this transition is not held up as a success. When the national assembly is in session it sits in Dodoma, but most government ministries - and all foreign embassies - have remained in the old capital of Dar es Salaam). 
The current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power after staging a coup that deposed Mohamad Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected President. A former army general, el-Sisi announced that he would be moving Egypt’s capital from Cairo to a New Administrative City (NUC), 50 km east of the existing capital, Cairo. It would be constructed from scratch at an exorbitant cost of $45 billion by conservative estimates. This project has been mainly funded by the military and not only will the military pay for it, but it will also reap enormous financial benefits from the endeavour. This move strengthens the role of the military and legitimises el-Sisi’s grasp on power. This move has been criticised as a blatant display of military corruption and political showboating. It was set to open in 2021 but has been postponed in light of the pandemic. 
Sometimes nature also facilitates relocation. After an earthquake destroyed the city of Antigua in 1773, the Spanish moved the Guatemalan capital to Guatemala City. Also, over the last few decades, cities have become so crowded that there are no longer enough resources to sustain their populations. Relocating the capital to a lesser developed region of the country then theoretically has the twin benefits of reducing congestion in one city and aiding development in another part of the nation. Nigeria is a prime example of this. Initially, its capital was Lagos, the most populated city in the country. However, Lagos proved to be too muggy, crowded and hot, so in the 1980s, the Nigerian government started making plans to establish a new capital in Abuja, which was less populated and more centrally located. Indonesia has also announced that its capital will be relocated from Jakarta (Java) to the island of Borneo, more than 1000 kilometres away, because Jakarta is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and is also sinking.
Climate Change:- 
Man-made climate change will soon force many countries to relocate capital out of necessity. In the Philippines, there is a high risk of natural disasters ranging from tsunamis, and floods to hurricanes. Its capital Manila, which is located on the coast, is especially vulnerable in part because it is densely populated and difficult to evacuate. Poor infrastructure including ineffective drainage systems and a lack of social services further exacerbates the problem. In 2009, nearly 80 per cent of the city was submerged by flooding. Given these considerations, it is not inconceivable that the government of the Philippines will have to relocate its capital in the near future. Whether doing so would reduce the population density of Manila is, however, debatable.
Similarly, according to OECD reports, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is ranked as the 3rd and 7th most vulnerable cities to flooding respectively. Another report from risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft ranked Delhi as the second most vulnerable city to climate change. It found that pollution was the primary threat to the health of the city, but, as many of the other cities noted here, congestion and poor urban planning is also a problem. Lima, the capital of Peru, is the most at-risk city in the Americas according to the report, and Muscat, the capital of Oman got a preview of what changes accompany a heating planet when temperatures went soaring.
All these capital cities along with numerous others are at risk of extreme weather events due to climate change. Unless urgent action is taken, capitals won’t be relocated due to symbolism, strategy, hubris or war but because we have made them simply inhospitable for human life.
Is the Capital the Best or the worst of the Nation?

Capitals not only represent the best of the nation but sometimes symbolize the worst.  Buildings, monuments and institutions in the capital city can be the target of hate, fear, and oppression, such as the Bastille in imperial Paris, the Gestapo Headquarters in Nazi Berlin, the KGB Headquarters in Soviet Moscow, and the wall in communist East Berlin. The capital can alienate the citizens, who turn their back on the capital or protest the capital. "Capitals are prizes, but they can also be the objects of distrust.  When people are estranged from the capital that is its symbol. If this is the case, urban planning, wide vistas and impressive buildings are not a solution. On the contrary, they serve as symbols and rallying places for the anti-system protesters" 

I mentioned in the beginning that there is a glaring exception of a country which has had the same capital for the last many centuries. Can you guess? It is also considered the oldest city in the world. 
Well, it is Syria. And Damascus is continuously occupied capital for 10000 years now!! Isn't that amazing
Now let us talk about another extreme. There has been a debate about whether there is an end to Capital Cities.
At the extreme, is a single point capital really necessary anymore? One could imagine a new political geography beyond the very traditional notion of political power being physically concentrated in one urban centre. Echoing the rise of the virtual office and the virtual corporation, a government could maintain its institutional centralisation yet be spatially ubiquitous. As of now, it is difficult to visualise such a scenario for most countries but with rapid technological strides, the day could not be too far off. 
The "virtual capital" would have an electronic parliament or congress, with direct representation from the localities. The scenario is a non-place capital city: a nation without a capital city, but rather with a spatially decentralized network of political administration and control. The logical conclusion would be direct democracy through the Internet, leading not to the Marxian notion of the state withering away, but rather to the withering away of the capital city. The World Wide Web would replace the World City.
@ Yeshwant Marathe
Ref: Meera Patel Article in Indian Express 

Leave a comment

Get more stuff

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.

Recent Comments


Retelling History in an engaging language, featuring facts and thorough research.

Contact Info

  • yeshwant.marathe@gmail.com

Follow Me

Contact Form


My Other Blogs: sarmisal.in

Copyright © 2020 HistoryCafe.

Made with ♡ by iTGS