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Capital (political)

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Capital (political)

"Capital cities" redirects here. For the former media company, see Capital Cities Communications. For the band, see Capital Cities (band).

A capital city or capital town (or simply capital) is the municipality enjoying primary status in a state, country, province, or other region as its seat of government. A capital is typically a city that physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of its respective government and is normally fixed by its law or constitution. In some jurisdictions, including several countries, the different branches of government are located in different settlements.


The word capital derives from the Latin caput, meaning "head".

In several English-speaking states, the terms county town, county seat, and borough seat are also used in lower subdivisions. In unitary states, subnational capitals are commonly known as "administrative centres".

An alternative term is political capital, but this phrase has a second meaning based on a different sense of the word capital. The capital is often, but not necessarily, the largest city of its constituent.


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 federation. Examples are Ancient Baghdad, Berlin, Constantinople, Ancient Cusco, London, Ancient Athens, Madrid, Moscow, Ancient Rome, Beijing, 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 makers. Some of these cities are or were also religious centres, e.g. Constantinople (more than one religion), Rome (the Roman Catholic Church), Jerusalem (Judaism), Ancient Baghdad, Moscow (the Russian Orthodox Church), Belgrade (the Serbian 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, Belgrade, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Copenhagen, Dublin, Lima, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Manila, Montevideo, Mexico City, Nairobi, Paris, Prague, Riga, Rome, Santiago, Seoul, Skopje, Sofia, Stockholm, Tirana, Tokyo, Taipei, and Vienna.

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, Quebec City by Montreal, 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, 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.

Modern capitals

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 federal 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 Dresden, Wiesbaden, Mainz, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Munich. Likewise, each of the republics of the Russian Federation has its own capital city.

Planned capital cities

Many capital cities were planned by government to house the seat of government of the nation or subdivision. Some planned capitals include Abuja, Nigeria (1991); Aracaju, Sergipe, Brazil (1855); Ankara, Turkey (1923); Austin, Texas (1839); Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil (1897); Dhaka, Bangladesh (1971); Brasília, Brazil (1960); Canberra, Australia (1927); Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil (1933); Islamabad, Pakistan (1960); Frankfort, Kentucky (1792); Jefferson City, Missouri (1821); Jhongsing New Village, Taiwan (1955); New Delhi, India (1911); Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1889); Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (1857); Palmas, Tocantins, Brazil (1989); Quezon City, Philippines (1948–1976); Raleigh, North Carolina, USA (1792); Valletta, Malta (1571); Washington D.C., USA (1800); and Wellington, New Zealand (1865).

These cities satisfy one or both of the following criteria:

  1. 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).
  2. 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 centres.

Some examples of the second situation are:

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.

  • Chile: Santiago is the capital even though the National Congress of Chile meets in Valparaíso.
  • Czech Republic: Prague is the sole constitutional capital. Brno is home to all three of the country's highest courts, making it the de facto capital of the Czech judicial branch.
  • Estonia: the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Education and Research are located in Tartu.
  • Finland: During the summer, the President resides at the Kultaranta in Naantali; presidential sessions of the government are held there as well.
  • France: The French constitution does not recognise any capital city in France. By law[2] Paris is the seat of both houses of Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate), but their joint congresses are held at the Palace of Versailles. In case of emergency the seat of the constitutional powers can be transferred in another town, in order for the Houses of Parliament to keep seating in the same location of the President and Cabinet.
  • Germany: The official capital Berlin is home to the parliament and the highest bodies of the executive branch (consisting of the ceremonial presidency and effective chancellery). Various ministries are located in the former West German capital of Bonn, which now has the title Federal City. The Federal Constitutional Court has its seat in Karlsruhe, which as a consequence is sometimes called Germany's "judicial capital"; none of Germany's highest judicial organs are located in Berlin.
  • Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur is the constitutional capital and seat of parliament, but the federal administrative centre and judiciary were moved 30 kilometres south to Putrajaya.
  • 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 (8.1 sq mi), has no distinct capital city, and thus has a capital district instead.
  • 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

There are several countries where the official capital and de facto seat of government are - for various reasons - separated:

Capitals disputed by the international community

International entities

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 capital cities
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[by whom?] the two closest capitals, are 55 km (34 mi) apart.
  • Farthest away from each other
The capitals farthest away from each other are Asunción, Paraguay, and Taipei, Taiwan, which are 19,940 km (12,390 mi) apart. This is very nearly the maximum possible, since they are only 80 km (50 mi) away from being antipodes, or directly opposite each other on a globe.
  • Farthest away among two sovereign countries that share a border
The greatest distance between the capitals of two sovereign countries that share a border is 8,572 km (5,326 mi), between Brasilia, Brazil, and Paris, France. Brazil borders French Guiana which is an overseas department of France.
If overseas dependencies are not taken into account, then the maximum distance is 6,423 km (3,991 mi), between Pyongyang, North Korea, and Moscow, Russia.
  • Farthest away from the closest other capital city (remoteness)
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. The relation is reciprocal—each one is nearer to the other than to the capital of any other sovereign country.

See also


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