A look at some countries that have moved their capitals
Muhammad Bilal Butt
Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo has announced the national capital will move from Jakarta, on the island of Java, to the province of East Kalimantan, on Borneo. He has several reasons: Jakarta, the current capital, is sinking, polluted and suffering from chronic congestion; Kalimantan is relatively free of natural disasters; and the area is at the center of the sprawling archipelago, supporting his plan to shift away from a “Java-centric” economy centered on Jakarta. Widodo’s plan has plenty of precedents. Countries from Brazil to Turkey have switched seats of government over the past century, the successes and failures of which can provide Indonesia with lessons for its $33 billion relocation plan.
A country’s capital city is often characterized by its history, a significantly high population, a high-level of political influence, and a strong economy. Capital cities are known to host the seat of that particular country’s government. Once in a while, some countries may opt to move the country’s capital from one location to another for different reasons. Throughout history, the relocation of capital cities has been done on several occasions. Even the Ancient Chinese, Romans, and Egyptians used to change the capital cities of their territories from time to time.
There are many possible reasons why a country might want to move its capital city. One of the most common is a desire to have a city that is purposely designed from scratch as an administrative capital in order to have better city planning and improved efficiency. If a new capital is built in a previously less developed area, this has the additional benefit of spurring development and economic growth. Other reasons are choosing a city that is easier to defend in the event of an invasion, less prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis, or more neutral in terms of competing ethnic or religious demographics to promote national unity. Most often, the actual move is triggered by a mix of these reasons.
Here are some other countries that have moved capitals over the years:
Australia´s purpose-built capital Canberra became official in the late 1920s as a compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne. Situated inland to guard against a possible naval bombardment, Canberra is now home to Parliament House and the High Court of Australia as well as the head offices of all federal government departments and the military. Canberra was an obscure village on the River Molonglo, about 150 miles southwest of Sydney, with a long aboriginal history, a record of European settlement going back to the 1820s and an Anglican church dating from the 1840s. Its name may come from an aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting place’.
Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil for ages. But the city was crowded, government buildings were far apart and traffic was heavy. So the government decided to create a new city specifically developed to be the capital. The country’s government commissioned a purpose-built and centrally located city, Brasilia, to replace Rio de Janeiro as capital in the 1950s. Brasilia’s famous civic buildings, designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer, were inaugurated in 1960. The new capital, about 1,100 km from the previous one, is divided into numbered blocks for easier navigation — hotel sector, embassy sector, for example. Acclaimed for its large-scale modernist architecture, the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The coastal town of Lagos, Nigeria’s capital since 1914, was growing in an unplanned way. In 1976, head of state General Murtala R Mohammed announced that Abuja would be developed as the new capital. The place was chosen as it was seen as a more neutral land for Nigeria’s many ethnic and religious groups — no group or ethnicity could call Abuja as their land. The city is also more centrally located in the country. Construction started in the 1980s and Abuja became the new capital on December 12, 1991. The skyline of the city is dominated by Aso Rock, an enormous monolith. Almost 2.5 million people now call Abuja home.
Almaty was the capital when the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But the city had little room to expand, could experience an earthquake and was too close to the Chinese border for the Kazakhs’ comfort. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1994 pushed a law through parliament to move the capital from Almaty, which had been eclipsed by Uzbekistan’s Tashkent as the Soviet Union’s unofficial capital of Central Asia, to Akmola. So the government moved the capital 1,200 km north to Astana in December 1997. The city was renamed Astana in 1998.On March 20, 2019, Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of the long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The southern port city of Karachi was named Pakistan’s first capital in 1947 after the country gained independence from Britain. But in the 1950s, a group led by Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan took control of the country in coup, and selected Islamabad in the north as the new capital. The site was chosen due to its proximity to the disputed territory of Kashmir and its invulnerability to coastal attacks. All functions of the federal government were moved to Islamabad, except for the central bank, which remains in Karachi, the country’s main business hub. The new capital, developed by a Greek architect, is known for its greenery and quality living standards.
Yangon, also called Rangoon, was the capital from 1948 to November 6, 2005, when the country’s military rulers moved the seat of government 320 km north to Naypyidaw. The new capital is more centrally and strategically located. But no official reason has been given for the shift. Some say the move may have been triggered by a warning from an astrologer about a foreign military attack. The Guardian said it was a “vanity project” of Than Shwe, the head of state from 1992 to 2011. The sprawling city has almost six times the land area of New York. It boasts a replica of Yangon´s Shwedagon Pagoda and a 20-lane highway, although they´re often empty as the city is sparsely populated.
Malaysia’s then- (and current) Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed to move the nation’s administrative capital from Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s, picking a site just 25 km south of the previous capital. Putrajaya was named after the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, and the entire project was designed and built by Malaysian companies for an estimated $8.1 billion. While Kuala Lumpur remained as the country’s financial and commercial capital, Putrajaya became the seat of government. Federal ministries and government agencies began moving there in 2003, the same year Mahathir stepped down as prime minister. Almost all government bodies, including the prime minister’s office and official residence, are now in Putrajaya.
- Ivory Coast
Although Yamoussoukro is the political capital of the Ivory Coast, Abidjan is the country’s largest city and is considered its economic capital. Abidjan served as the nation’s politcal capital from 1933 until it was replaced by Yamoussoukro in 1983 when Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny moved the country’s capital city from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, his birthplace. Huge building sites were set up to transform what was a small village into a modern city: an international airport was built, a polytechnic institute, a presidential palace and even the world’s largest church. But most institutions were never transferred to Yamoussoukro and few people ever moved there.
In the 1970s Tanzania’s capital began the move from coastal Dar es Salaam to centrally-located Dodoma, which until then was a small market town of 40,000. The change was made to centralise the capital within the country and create new economic opportunities. Dodoma was also chosen because of its location at a major crossroads, the surrounding room it had for development, and its agreeable climate. After many decades, however, the move is still not complete, with many government offices and embassies resisting the switch. When the national assembly is in session it sits in Dodoma, but most government ministries – and all foreign embassies – have remained in the old capital of Dar es Salaam.
Russia has switched between Moscow and St Petersburg. The former superpower’s capital city, for close to 200 years, was St Petersburg. St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, served as the country’s capital from 1712-1918, before the government reverted to Moscow. The year World War I ended in 1918, the new Bolshevik government, led by Vladimir Lenin, shifted base to Moscow.
Kolkata, erstwhile Calcutta, was the capital city of India during the rule of the British. Strong anti-colonial sentiments over the partition of Bengal led to many British officials getting murdered. The dubious law and order situation in the city forced the British to reunite Bengal and shift its administrative capital to Delhi. The announcement was made in a Delhi Durbar of 1911 at Coronation Park.
The capital city of Philippines, Manila, has seen its fair share of flooding, which prompted the central government to build another city named as New Clark City as a back-up in the event of Manila being destroyed by a natural disaster.
In 2012, it was announced that the capital of South Korea would be shifted from Seoul to Sejong City. Seoul had been considered too close to North Korea, and was suffering from congestion.
Japan has also tried to move some national government functions out of Tokyo, notably to relocate the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto and the Consumer Affairs Agency to Tokushima Prefecture. But for various reasons, such as crisis management and from a parliamentary business perspective, the plans have been put on ice.
Egyptian capital, Cairo, on the banks of the Nile, has a population of nearly 24 million in the greater metropolitan area. To tackle congestion and to take the country to a new path, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has decided to construct a city about 45 km to the east of Cairo. The new administrative capital will span 700 sq km, making it almost as large as Singapore, and is intended to house 5 million people.
Here are additional capital relocations that have occurred in approximately the last few centuries.
Since 1982, Sri Lanka’s Parliament has met in Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, but some other government functions remain in Colombo.
Former capitals of Iran include Esfahan and Shiraz. It is now Tehran.
A former capital of Thailand is Ayutthaya. It is now Bangkok.
Hue was an ancient capital of Vietnam. It is now Hanoi.
Laos from Luang Prabang to Vientiane – 1975
Turkey from Istanbul to Ankara – 1923
The Philippines from Quezon City to Manila – 1976
Japan from Kyoto to Tokyo – 1868
Oman from Salalah to Muscat – 1970
Saudi Arabia from Diriyah to Riyadh – 1818
Indonesia from Yogyakarta to Jakarta – 1949
Bhutan from Punakha (former winter capital) to Thimpu – 1907
Uzbekistan from Samarkand to Tashkent – 1930
Afghanistan from Kandahar to Kabul – 1776
Former capitals of Italy include Turin, Florence, and Salerno. The current capital of Italy is Rome.
Bonn was the capital of West Germany from 1949-1990. Reunified Germany’s capital began as Bonn but was moved to Berlin in 1999.
Kragujevac has served as the capital of Serbia several times. It is now Belgrade.
Durres was briefly capital of Albania during World War I. It is now Tirana.
Lithuania from Kaunas to Vilnius – 1939
Malta from Mdina to Valetta – 16th century
Poland from Krakow to Warsaw – 1596
Montenegro from Cetinje to Podgorica – 1946
Greece from Nafplion to Athens – 1834
Finland from Turku to Helsinki – 1812
Ghana from Cape Coast to Accra – 1877
Botswana from Mafeking to Gaborone – 1965
Guinea Bissau from Madina do Boe to Bissau – 1974
Cape Verde from Cidade Velha to Praia – 1858
Togo from Aneho to Lome – 1897
Malawi from Zomba to Lilongwe – 1974
Trinidad and Tobago from San Jose to Port of Spain – 1784
Jamaica from Port Royal to Spanish Town to Kingston – 1872
Barbados from Jamestown to Bridgetown – 1628
Honduras from Comayagua to Tegucigalpa – 1888
New Zealand from Auckland to Wellington –1865
The Federated States of Micronesia from Kolonia to Palikir – 1989
Palau from Koror to Ngerulmud – 2006