A capital city (or just capital) is the area of a country, province, region, or state regarded as enjoying primary status; although there are exceptions, a capital is almost always a city which physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of the seat of government and is fixed by law. An alternative term is political capital, but this phrase has a second meaning based on an alternative sense of capital. The capital is frequently the largest city of its constituent area.
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.
The 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 center" or other similar terms are typically used. For example, the seat of government in a U.S. state is usually called its "capital", but the main city in a region of England is usually not, even though in Ireland, a county's main town is usually regarded as its capital. At lower administrative subdivisions, terms such as county town, county seat, or borough seat are usually used.
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 amalgamation. This was the case for London, Berlin, 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 center is sometimes referred to as a primate city. Such is certainly the case with Paris, London and Madrid among national capitals, and Milan, Irkutsk or Phoenix in their respective state or province.
Capitals are sometimes sited to discourage further growth in an existing major city. Naypyidaw was founded in Burma's interior with the justification that the former capital, Yangon, was 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 New Delhi, Abuja, Ankara, Brasília, Canberra, Astana, Islamabad, Ottawa and Washington, D.C. are planned cities that were built as an alternative to the seat of government residing in an established population centre for various reasons. In many cases in their own right they 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.
- Benin: Porto-Novo is the official capital, but Cotonou is the seat of government.
- 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.
- 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 home to seat to the parliament. However, various ministries are located in the former West German capital of Bonn, which now has the title Federal City. The judicial branch is divided between Karlsruhe, Kassel, 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.
- Myanmar (Burma): Naypyidaw was designated the national capital in 2005, the same year it was founded, but most government offices and embassies are still located in Yangon (Rangoon).
- 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.
- 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).
- Sri Lanka: Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is the official capital and the location of the parliament, while the former capital, Colombo, is now designated as the "commercial capital". However, many government offices are still located in Colombo. Both cities are in the Colombo District.
- South Africa: The administrative capital is Pretoria, the legislative capital is Cape Town, and the judicial capital is Bloemfontein. This is 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.
- Tanzania: Dodoma was designated the national capital in 1973, but most government offices and embassies are still located in Dar es Salaam.
- Monaco, Singapore and the Vatican City are city-states, and thus do not have a capital city distinct from the country as a whole.
Capitals that are not the seat of government
Countries in the world where capital and seat of government are currently separated:
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 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 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, Ottawa, 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. Wellington, located on the southwestern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, replaced the much more northerly Auckland due to its proximity to the South Island.
- 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. Likewise, great resources were expended by the Confederacy, in defending, and by the Union, in attacking, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
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 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.
Relative size of capital cities
In most countries the seat of government is situated in the largest city; exceptions to this practice are listed below.
Capitals located in the 2nd largest city
Capitals located in the 3rd largest city
Capitals located in the 4th largest city
Capitals located in the 5th largest city
Unless otherwise stated population data is based on figures presented in their respective Wikipedia articles.
Distance to the capital
The greatest distance between a capital and the remotest part of the country is from
Other great distances are
- Washington, D.C. to Attu Island, Alaska, US, 7,800 km (4,800 mi)
- Moscow to Kunashir Island, Russia, 7,050 km (4,380 mi)
Distances between capital cities (nearest and farthest)
- 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.
- 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.