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Why countries change their capital cities

From whims of tyrants to climate change and consensus, there are many reasons why countries are still looking for new capitals

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: January 8, 2022 8:08:15 pm
Egypt new capital, new capital area in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, capitals, capital cities, new administrative capital, Constantinople, world news, current affairs, indian expressThe city, named the New Administrative Capital, was set to open in 2021 but has been postponed in light of the pandemic. (Google maps)

In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that the country would be changing its capital to a ‘new’ city that would be built 50 km east of the existing capital, Cairo. The city, named the New Administrative Capital, was set to open in 2021 but has been postponed in light of the pandemic. This move, which costs $45 billion by conservative estimates, has been criticised as a blatant display of military corruption and political showboating. But Egypt is not alone, recently Palau (2006), Burma (2005), Nigeria (1991) and Belize (1970) all have also moved to new capitals.  

Capital cities play an important role in signaling 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. Capitals are subject to change for a variety of reasons, usually with much fanfare but at a great economic burden to the nation in question. 

Functions of capital cities

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.

 In an article for Routledge, Tanja Conley and Emily Makaš state that the first modern iteration of capital cities emerged between the period from the Napoleonic Wars and World War II, during which, “the construction or adaptation of capital cities (gave) visual support to national ideologies.” In Cold War Metropolis (1990), Campbell Scott further argues that the shift from city states to nation states during that period “illustrates this dramatic urban transformation that gave rise to the modern capital.” The rise of the absolutist nation state therefore “transformed the military role of the capital city from a fortified military location to a broader demonstration of the political and symbolic centrality of the capital.” R.L Wolfel in North to Astana (2002), then notes that with this power, “capitals can either invoke or submerge history, depending on the ideological needs of the state.”

Egypt new capital, new capital area in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, capitals, capital cities, new administrative capital, Constantinople, world news, current affairs, indian express Presidential Palace in Madrid (Wikimedia Commons)

Campbell, in another paper, goes on to define 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).

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.

Why do countries relocate capitals?

In Capitals and the Modern City, Andreas Daum asserts that capital cities have assumed at times, “a mythical quality and have been seen as collective symbols, with ambitions and contradictions that mirror the nation-state they represent”. The decision to relocate a capital is therefore often a symbolic gesture. 

In 1834, four years after gaining independence, Athens was made capital of Greece with the hopes that doing so would conjure the glory of Ancient Greece. More recently, post-colonial nations have either changed or renamed capitals in order to assert their independence from their colonisers. 

In Capital Relocation in Africa, Deborah Potts states that the colonial associations of previous capitals “were sometimes felt to be galling to independent governments for whom the capital city is necessarily perceived as a symbol of independent national pride.” In fact, after independence, Chandigarh (state capital of Punjab and Haryana) and Gandhinagar (state capital of Gujrat), were built in quick succession. Alluding to the prominent role capital cities occupied, Nehru even hailed Chandigarh as being “symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” This, despite the fact that Chandigarh was designed and built by Le Corbusier, an architect of French heritage. Additionally, some states like Botswana were forced to relocate capitals after independence because their old capitals were no longer within their post-colonial territorial jurisdiction.

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. 

More recently, however, capitals have been strategically relocated due to demographics. Kristof Dascher, in his book on capital cities, argues that 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 a neutral territory, he states, would “help rectify demographic imbalances rooted in country’s particular geography”

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.

Historically, tyrants have been more likely to change capitals than democratically appointed leaders. They have often named capitals after themselves (Constantinople, Alexandria) and nascent regimes have done likewise for national heroes (Washington DC, Leningrad). Due to the enormous cost and resources required to shift capitals, the act is more common under authoritarian regimes because tyrants don’t necessarily need public opinion on their side. 

Egypt new capital, new capital area in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, capitals, capital cities, new administrative capital, Constantinople, world news, current affairs, indian express Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Arab Spring, 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) constructed from scratch at an exorbitant cost. This project has been mainly funded by the military and not only will the military pay for it, 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.

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 Java to the island of Borneo because Java is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Climate Change

Man-made climate change will soon force many countries to relocate capitals out of necessity. In the Philippines, there is a high risk of natural disasters ranging from tsunamis, 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, are 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, like many of the other cities noted here, the 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 reached 41 C last year.

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.

Further Reading

Cold War Metropolis, Campbell Scott, University of Minnesota Press, 2003

North to Astana, Richard Wolfel, Taylor and Francis Online, 2010

Shaping Central and Southeastern European Capital Cities in the Age of Nationalism, Tanja Damljanović Conley, Emily Gunzburger Makaš, Taylor and Francis Online, 2010

Capitals in Modern History: Inventing Urban Spaces for the Nation, Andreas W Daum, Cambridge University Press, 2013

Capital Relocation in Africa: The Case of Lilongwe in Malawi, Deborah Potts, Jstor, 1985

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