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Capital city

Related subjects: Politics and government

Background Information

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A capital is the area of a country regarded as enjoying primary status; it is almost always the city which physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of the seat of government and fixed by law, but there are a number of exceptions. Alternate terms include capital city and political capital; the latter phrase has a second meaning based on an alternative sense of "capital".

The word capital is derived from the Latin caput meaning "head," and, in the United States, the related term Capitol refers to the building where government business is chiefly conducted.

Seats of government in major sub-state jurisdictions are often called "capitals", but this is typically the case only in countries with some degree of federalism, where major substate jurisdictions have an element of sovereignty. In unitary states, "administrative centre" or other similar terms are typically used. For example, the seat of government in a state of the United States of America is usually called its "capital", but the main city in a region of England is usually not. At lower administrative subdivisions, terms such as county town, county seat, or borough seat are usually used.

Historically, the major economic centre of a state or region often becomes the focal point of political power, and becomes a capital through conquest or amalgamation. This was the case for London and Moscow. The capital naturally attracts the politically motivated and those whose skills are needed for efficient administration of government such as lawyers, journalists, and public policy researchers. A capital that is the prime economic, cultural, or intellectual centre is sometimes referred to as a primate city. Such is certainly the case with London and Buenos Aires among national capitals, and Irkutsk or Salt Lake City in their respective state or province.

Capitals are sometimes sited to discourage further growth in an existing major city. Brasília was situated in Brazil's interior because the old capital, Rio de Janeiro, and southeastern Brazil in general, were considered over-crowded.

The convergence of political and economic or cultural power is by no means universal. Traditional capitals may be economically eclipsed by provincial rivals, as occurred with Nanjing by Shanghai. The decline of a dynasty or culture could also mean the extinction of its capital city, as occurred with Babylon and Cahokia. Many present-day capital cities, such as Abuja, Brasília, Canberra, Islamabad, Ottawa and Washington, D.C. are planned cities, purposefully located away from established population centres for various reasons, and have become gradually established as new business or commercial centres.

Unorthodox capital city arrangements

A number of cases exist where states have multiple capitals, and there are also several states that have no capital. In other cases, the official capital is not the effective one for pragmatic reasons. That is, the city known as the capital is not the seat of government. Occasionally, the official capital may host the seat of government, but is not the geographic origin of political decision-making. The following list specifies the details observed in sovereign states.

  • Bolivia: Sucre is still the constitutional capital, but most of the national government long abandoned that region for La Paz.
  • Chile: Santiago is the capital even though the National Congress of Chile is in Valparaíso.
  • Côte d'Ivoire: Yamoussoukro was designated the national capital in 1983, but most government offices and embassies are still located in Abidjan.
  • Czech Republic: Prague is the sole constitutional capital. However, Brno is home to all three of the country's highest courts, making it the de facto capital of the Czech judicial branch.
  • European Union: Brussels, Belgium is generally treated as the 'capital' of the European Union, and the two institutions of the EU's executive, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, both have their seats there. However, a protocol attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam requires that the European Parliament have monthly sessions in Strasbourg, France. Financial and legal centres are also located outside of Brussels. However, the EU is not a country, and hence calling any city the capital may be disputed.
  • France: The French constitution does not recognize any capital city in France. Paris is de facto capital of France (seat of the Presidency, the Government, the National Assembly and the Senate), but the parliament holds its joint congresses in Versailles.
  • Germany: The official capital Berlin is seat to the parliament the government. However, various ministries are located in the former West German capital of Bonn, which has now the title Federal City. The judicial branch is divided between Karlsruhe and Leipzig.
  • Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur is the constitutional capital but the federal administrative centre was moved 30 kilometres south to Putrajaya in the late 1990s. The parliament remains in Kuala Lumpur.
  • Montenegro: Cetinje is the constitutional capital, but much greater Podgorica is the administrative centre.
  • Nauru: Nauru, a tiny country of only 21 square kilometres (8 sq mi), has no distinct capital city, and thus has a capital district instead.
  • The Netherlands: Amsterdam is the constitutional national capital even though the Dutch government, parliament, supreme court and the residential palace of the queen are all located in The Hague. (For more details see: Capital of the Netherlands).
  • South Africa: The administrative capital is Pretoria, the legislative capital is Cape Town, and the judicial capital is Bloemfontein, the outcome of the compromise that created the Union of South Africa in 1910.
  • Switzerland: Bern is the Federal City of Switzerland and functions as de facto capital. However, the Swiss Supreme Court is located in Lausanne.
  • United Kingdom: The locations of various courts of the judicial systems have no direct ties with the coincident towns or cities, the highest level courts and their administrative offices merely having settled within a convenient distance of the legislatures and not all within the same local government area.
  • Singapore has no capital city distinct from the country as a whole.

Capital as 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 affair. For example:

  • Ruined and almost uninhabited Athens was made capital of newly independent Greece 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, while Kemal Atatürk did the same by moving to Ankara, away from more Ottoman Istanbul. The Ming Emperors moved their capital to Beijing from more central Nanjing as to better supervise the border with the Mongols and Manchus. 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, continuing as Independent India's capital from 1947. Other examples include Abuja, Astaná, Brasília, Helsinki, Islamabad, Naypyidaw and Yamoussoukro.
  • The selection or founding of a "neutral" capital city — i.e. one unencumbered by regional or political identity — was meant to represent the unity of a new state when Bern, Canberra, Madrid, and Washington, D.C. became capitals. 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.
  • During the American Civil War, tremendous resources were expended to defend Washington, D.C., which bordered the Confederate States of America, from Confederate attack, even though the then-small federal government could have been moved relatively easily in the era of railroads and telegraph.

Strategic importance of capitals

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 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, due to 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 frontiersmen-civilians. 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 is taken; in their military strategies, traditional enemies of France such as Germany focused on the capture of Paris.

Largest national capital cities

The largest national capitals in each region, by urban/metropolitan area population, are:

Distance to the capital

The greatest distance between a capital and the remotest part of the country is from Paris to New Caledonia, France with 16,760 km (10,410 mi).

Other great distances are

Distances Between Capital Cities (Nearest & Farthest)

  • Nearest
The closest two 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 second closest two 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 (1 mile) 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 miles) apart.
  • Farthest
The longest distance from one capital of a sovereign country to the one closest to it is 2330 km (1448 miles) 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 6423 km (3991 miles), between Pyongyang, North Korea and Moscow, Russia.
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