Capital city

Capital city

A capital city (or just capital) is the area of a country, province, region, or state considered to enjoy primary status; although there are exceptions, a capital is typically a city that physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of the seat of government and is usually fixed by law or by the constitution. An alternative term is political capital, but this phrase has a second meaning based on an alternate sense of the word capital. The capital is often, but not necessarily, the largest city of its constituent area, and is also often a specialized city.

The word capital derives from the Latin caput meaning "head" and, in the United States, the related term capitol refers to the building where Congress meets.

The seats of government in major sub-state jurisdictions are often called "capitals," but this is typically only the case in countries with some degree of federalism, where major sub-state legal jurisdictions have elements of sovereignty. In unitary states, an "administrative centre" or other similar term is typically used for such locations besides the national capital city. For example, the seat of government in a state of the United States is usually called its "capital", but the main city in a region of the United Kingdom is usually not called such, even though in Ireland, a county's main town is usually called its "capital". On the other hand, the four main subdivisions of the United Kingdom do have capital cities: ScotlandEdinburgh, WalesCardiff, Northern IrelandBelfast, and EnglandLondon. Counties in England, Wales and Scotland have historic county towns, which are often not the largest settlement within the county and often are no longer administrative centres, as many historical counties are now only ceremonial, and administrative boundaries are different.

In Canada, there is a national capital, and the ten provinces and three territories all have capital cities. The states of such countries as Mexico, Brazil (including the famous cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, capitals of their respective states), and Australia all have capital cities. For example, the six state capitals of Australia are Adelaide, South Australia; Brisbane, Queensland; Hobart, Tasmania; Melbourne, Victoria; Perth, Western Australia; and Sydney, New South Wales. In Australia, the term "capital cities" is regularly used, to refer to the aforementioned state capitals plus the federal capital Canberra and Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, each of its constituent states (or Länder - plural of Land) has its own capital city, such as Wiesbaden, Mainz, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Munich. Likewise, each of the republics of the Russian Federation has its own capital city.

In the lower administrative subdivisions in various English-speaking countries, terms such as county town, county seat, and borough seat are usually used.


Origins of capital cities

Historically, the major economic center of a state or region often becomes the focal point of political power, and becomes a capital through conquest or federation. Examples are Ancient Baghdad, Berlin, Constantinople, London, Madrid, Moscow, Ancient Rome, Peking, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Vienna. The capital city naturally attracts politically motivated people and those whose skills are needed for efficient administration of national or imperial governments, such as lawyers, political scientists, bankers, journalists, and public policy mavens. Some of these cities are or were also religious centres, e.g. Constantinople (more than one religion), Rome (the Roman Catholic Church), Jerusalem (more than one religion), Ancient Baghdad, London (the Anglican Church), Moscow (the Russian Orthodox Church), Paris, and Peking.

A capital city that is also the prime economic, cultural, or intellectual centre of a nation or an empire is sometimes referred to as a primate city. Examples are Athens, Beijing, Brussels, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Copenhagen, Dublin, Lima, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Manila, Montevideo, Mexico City, Nairobi, Paris, Prague, Rome, Seoul, Stockholm, Tokyo, Vienna, Vilnius, and Warsaw.

The convergence of political and economic or cultural power is by no means universal. Traditional capitals may be economically eclipsed by provincial rivals, e.g. Nanking by Shanghai, Edinburgh by Glasgow and numerous US state capitals. The decline of a dynasty or culture could also mean the extinction of its capital city, as occurred at Babylon and Cahokia.

Although many capitals are defined by constitution or legislation, many long-time capitals have no legal designation as such: for example Bern, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London, Melbourne, Paris, Toronto and Wellington. They are recognised as capitals as a matter of convention, and because all or almost all the country's central political institutions, such as government departments, supreme court, legislature, embassies, etc., are located in or near them.

Planned capital cities

Many current capital cities were deliberately planned by government to house the seat of government of the nation or subdivision. These cities, such as Abuja, Nigeria (1991); Ankara, Turkey (1923); Dhaka, Bangladesh (1971); Brasília, Brazil (1960); Canberra, Australia (1927); Islamabad, Pakistan (1960); Frankfort, Kentucky (1792); Jefferson City, Missouri (1821); Jhongsing New Village, Taiwan, Republic of China (1955); New Delhi, India (1911); Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1889); Ottawa, Canada (1857); Quezon City, Philippines (1948–1976); Raleigh, North Carolina, USA (1792); Washington D.C., USA (1800); and Wellington, New Zealand (1865) satisfy one or both of the following criteria:

  • A deliberately planned city that was built expressly to house the seat of government, superseding a capital city that had been located in an established population center. There have been various reasons for this, including overcrowding in that major metropolitan area, and the desire to place the capital city in a location with a better climate (usually a less tropical one).
  • A town that was chosen as a compromise among two or more cities (or other political divisions), none of which was willing to concede to the other(s) the privilege of being the capital city. Usually, the new capital is geographically located roughly equidistant between the competing population centers.

Some examples of the second situation are:

  1. Canberra, Australia, which was chosen as a compromise located between Melbourne and Sydney.
  2. Frankfort, Kentucky, which is midway between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky.
  3. Ottawa, Canada, which is located along the boundary between the Province of Quebec and the Province of Ontario - the two most populous of the ten provinces, and also roughly midway between the two most populous cities of Canada, Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto, Ontario.
  4. Wellington, New Zealand, which is located at the southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, the more populous island, immediately across the Cook Strait from the South Island. The capital city was moved there from Auckland, at the northern extremity of the North Island, due to fears that the then gold-rich South Island would decide to become a separate colony.

When the United States of America established its present constitution in 1787, the question of its capital city arose. Several cities wished to be the national capital, including Boston; New York City; Philadelphia; Richmond, Virginia; but none of these was willing to concede this honor to one of the others. Also there was rivalry between the proposed thirteen States of the United States as to which one would contain the capital city. A compromise was reached to establish a federal district separate from any of the states, which would contain a new capital city. The capital district was given the name District of Columbia, and the capital city of Washington was founded within it. In 1800, Washington was ready to house the federal government.

The District of Columbia was the first such district to be set aside for a capital city, and this arrangement has been followed by Australia (the Australian Capital Territory), Mexico (the Federal District), Pakistan (Islamabad) and Brazil (Distrito Federal).

Changes in a nation's political regime sometimes result in the designation of a new capital. The newly independent Kazakhstan moved its capital to the existing city of Aqmola. Naypyidaw was founded in Burma's interior as the former capital, Rangoon, was claimed to be too overcrowded.[1]

Unusual capital city arrangements

A number of cases exist where states have multiple capitals, and there are also several states that have no capital.

Capitals that are not the seat of government

Countries in the world where capital and seat of government are currently separated:

International entities

The capital as a symbol

With the rise of modern empires and the nation-state, the capital city has become a symbol for the state and its government, and imbued with political meaning. Unlike medieval capitals, which were declared wherever a monarch held his or her court, the selection, relocation, founding, or capture of a modern capital city is an emotional event. For example:

  • The ruined and almost uninhabited Athens was made capital of newly independent Greece in 1834, four years after the country gained its independence, with the romantic notion of reviving the glory of Ancient Greece. Similarly, following the Cold War and German reunification, Berlin is now once again the capital of Germany. Other restored capital cities include Moscow after the October Revolution.
  • A symbolic relocation of a capital city to a geographically or demographically peripheral location may be for either economic or strategic reasons (sometimes known as a "forward capital" or spearhead capital). Peter I of Russia moved his government from Moscow to Saint Petersburg to give the Russian Empire a western orientation. The economically significant city of Nafplion became the first capital of Greece, instead of the then unimportant village that was Athens. The Ming emperors moved their capital to Peking from more central Nanking to better supervise the border with the Mongols. During the 1857 war of independence, Indian rebels considered Delhi their capital and Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed emperor, though the ruling British had their capital in Calcutta. In 1877, the British formally held a 'Durbar' in Delhi, proclaiming Queen Victoria as 'Empress of India'. Delhi finally became the colonial capital after the Coronation Durbar of King-Emperor George V in 1911, continuing as independent India's capital from 1947. Other examples include Abuja, Astana, Brasília, Helsinki, Islamabad, Naypyidaw and Yamoussoukro.
  • The selection or founding of a "neutral" capital city — i.e. one unencumbered by regional or political identities — was meant to represent the unity of a new state when Ankara, Turkey; Bern, Switzerland; Canberra, Australia; Madrid; Ottawa, Ontario; Washington, D.C.; and Wellington, New Zealand became capital cities. Sometimes, the location of a new capital city was chosen to terminate squabbling or possible squabbling between various entities, such as in the cases of Canberra, Ottawa, Washington, and Wellington.
  • The British-built town of New Delhi represented a simultaneous break and continuity with the past — the location of Delhi being where many imperial capitals were built, e.g., Indraprastha, Dhillika, and Shahjahanabad, but the actual capital being the new British-built town designed by Edwin Lutyens. Wellington, located on the southwestern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, replaced the much more northerly city of Auckland in order to place the national capital close to the South Island and hence to placate its residents.
  • During the American Civil War, tremendous resources were expended to defend Washington, D.C., which actually bordered on the Confederate States of America (with the Commonwealth of Virginia), from Confederate attack, even though the relatively small Federal Government of the United States of that time could have been moved elsewhere – such as Ohio or New York State relatively easily – in that era of the railroad and the telegraph.[citation needed] Likewise, great resources were expended by the Confederacy, in defending the Confederate capital from attack by the Union, in its deliberately[citation needed] exposed location of Richmond, Virginia, rather than in South Carolina or Alabama.

Capitals in military strategy

The capital city is almost always a primary target in a war, as capturing it usually guarantees capture of much of the enemy government, victory for the attacking forces, or at the very least demoralization for the defeated forces.

In ancient China, where governments were massive centralized bureaucracies with little flexibility on the provincial level, a dynasty could easily be toppled with the fall of its capital. In the Three Kingdoms period, both Shu and Wu fell when their respective capitals of Chengdu and Jianye fell. The Ming dynasty relocated its capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where they could more effectively control the generals and troops guarding the borders from Mongols and Manchus. The Ming was destroyed when the Li Zicheng took their seat of power, and this pattern repeats itself in Chinese history, until the fall of the traditional Confucian monarchy in the 20th century. After the Qing Dynasty's collapse, decentralization of authority and improved transportation and communication technologies allowed both the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists to rapidly relocate capitals and keep their leadership structures intact during the great crisis of Japanese invasion.

National capitals were arguably less important as military objectives in other parts of the world, including the West, because of socioeconomic trends toward localized authority, a strategic modus operandi especially popular after the development of feudalism and reaffirmed by the development of democratic and capitalistic philosophies. In 1204, after the Latin Crusaders captured the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, Byzantine forces were able to regroup in several provinces; provincial noblemen managed to reconquer the capital after 60 years and preserve the empire for another 200 years after that. The British forces sacked various American capitals repeatedly during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, but American forces could still carry on fighting from the countryside, where they enjoyed support from local governments and the traditionally independent civilian frontiersmen. Exceptions to these generalizations include highly centralized states such as France, whose centralized bureaucracies could effectively coordinate far-flung resources, giving the state a powerful advantage over less coherent rivals, but risking utter ruin if the capital were taken. In their military strategies, traditional enemies of France such as Prussia (in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871) focused on the capture of Paris.

Distances between capital cities (nearest and farthest)

  • Nearest
The closest capital cities of two sovereign countries are Vatican City, Vatican, and Rome, Italy, one of which is inside the other (the distance between the middle points, St. Peter's Square/Piazza Venezia is about 2 km).
The two second closest capital cities between two sovereign countries are Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, which are about 1.6 km (0.99 mi) apart, one upstream from the other on different banks of the Congo River (the distance between the middle points is about 10 km).
Vienna and Bratislava, sometimes erroneously considered the two closest capitals, are actually 55 km (34 mi) apart.
Nicosia is capital of North Cyprus and South Cyprus

  • Farthest
The longest distance from one capital of a sovereign country to the one closest to it is 2,330 km (1,448 mi) between Wellington, New Zealand, and Canberra, Australia. Each is nearer to the other than to the capital of any other sovereign country.
The greatest distance between the capitals of two sovereign countries that share a border is 6,423 km (3,991 mi), between Pyongyang, North Korea and Moscow, Russia.

See also


  1. ^ Pedrosa, Veronica (20 November 2006). "Burma's 'seat of the kings'". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 21 November 2006. 
  2. ^ Demey, Thierry (2007). Brussels, capital of Europe. S. Strange (trans.). Brussels: Badeaux. ISBN 2-9600414-2-9. 

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