Updated September 04, 2011The capital of a country is often a very populated city where much history has been made due to the high-level political and economic functions that occur there. However, sometimes government leaders decide to move the capital from one city to another. Capital relocation has been done hundreds of times throughout history. The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Chinese changed their capital frequently. Some countries choose new capitals that are more easily defended in a time of invasion or war. Some new capitals are planned and built in previously undeveloped areas to spur development. New capitals are sometimes in regions deemed neutral to competing ethnic or religious groups as this could promote unity, security, and prosperity. Here are some notable capital moves throughout modern history.
United StatesDuring and after the American Revolution, the United States Congress met in eight cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City. The construction of a new capital city in a separate federal district was outlined in the United States Constitution (Article One, Section Eight), and President George Washington selected a site near the Potomac River. Virginia and Maryland donated land. Washington, D.C. was designed and built and became the United States capital in 1800. The site was a compromise involving southern slave-holding economic interests and northern states who wanted war debts repaid.
RussiaMoscow was the capital of the Russian Empire from the 14th century until 1712. It then moved to St. Petersburg to be closer to Europe so that Russia would become more “western.” The Russian capital was moved back to Moscow in 1918.
CanadaIn the 19th century, the legislature of Canada alternated between Toronto and Quebec City. Ottawa became the capital of Canada in 1857. Ottawa was then a small town in a largely undeveloped region, but was chosen to be the capital city because it was close to the boundary between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
AustraliaIn the 19th century, Sydney and Melbourne were the two largest cities in Australia. They both wanted to become Australia’s capital, and neither would concede to the other. As a compromise, Australia decided to build a new capital city. After an extensive search and survey, a section of land was carved out of New South Wales and became the Australian Capital Territory. The city of Canberra was planned and became Australia’s capital city in 1927. Canberra is located about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne but it is not a coastal city.
IndiaCalcutta, in Eastern India, was the capital of British India until 1911. To better administer all of India, the capital moved by the British to the northern city of Delhi. The city of New Delhi was planned and built, and was proclaimed the capital in 1947.
BrazilBrazil’s capital relocation from very overcrowded Rio de Janeiro to the planned, built city of Brasilia occurred in 1961. This capital change had been considered for decades. Rio de Janeiro was thought to be too far from many parts of this large country. To encourage the development of the interior of Brazil, Brasilia was built from 1956-1960. Upon its establishment as Brazil's capital, Brasilia experienced very rapid growth. Brazil’s capital change was considered very successful, and many countries have been inspired by Brazil’s capital relocation achievement.
BelizeIn 1961, Hurricane Hattie badly damaged Belize City, the former capital of Belize. In 1970, Belmopan, an inland city, became the new capital of Belize to protect the government’s functioning, documents, and people in case of another hurricane.
TanzaniaIn the 1970s, Tanzania’s capital moved from coastal Dar es Salaam to centrally located Dodoma, but even after many decades, the move is not complete.
Cote d’IvoireIn 1983, Yamoussoukro became the capital of Cote d’Ivoire. This new capital was the hometown of the President of Cote d’Ivoire, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. He wanted to spur development in the central region of Cote d’Ivoire. However, many government offices and embassies remain in the former capital, Abidjan.
NigeriaIn 1991, the capital of Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country, was moved from Lagos because of overcrowding. Abuja, a planned city in central Nigeria, was deemed to be a more neutral city regarding Nigeria’s many ethnic and religious groups. Abuja also had a less tropical climate.
KazakhstanAlmaty, in southern Kazakhstan, was the Kazakh capital when the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Government leaders moved the capital to the northern city of Astana, formerly known as Aqmola, in December 1997. Almaty had little room to expand, could experience an earthquake, and was very close to other newly independent countries which could experience political turbulence. Almaty was also far from the region where ethnic Russians, who comprise about 25% of Kazakhstan’s population, live.
MyanmarMyanmar’s capital was formerly Rangoon, also known as Yangon. In November 2005, government workers were suddenly told by the military junta to move to the more northern city of Naypyidaw, which had been constructed since 2002 but not publicized. The entire world still doesn’t have a clear explanation why Myanmar's capital was relocated. This controversial capital change was possibly based on astrological advice and political fears. Yangon was the largest city in the country, and the restrictive government probably did not want crowds of people to protest against the government. Naypyidaw was also considered more easily defensible in case of a foreign invasion.
South SudanIn September 2011, just a few months after independence, South Sudan's Council of Ministers approved a move of the new country's capital city from the initial temporary capital of Juba to Ramciel, located closer to the center of the country. The new capital will be a located within an independent capital territory not part of the surrounding Lake State. It is expected that the move will take approximately five years to complete.
Iran - Possible Future Capital ChangeIran is considering relocating its capital from Tehran, which lies on about 100 fault lines and could experience a catastrophic earthquake. If the capital were a different city, the government could better manage the crisis and reduce casualties. However, some Iranians believe that the government wants to move the capital to avoid protests against the government, similar to Myanmar. Political leaders and seismologists are studying regions near Qom and Isfahan as possible places to build a new capital, but this would probably take decades and an enormous amount of money to complete.
See page two for a comprehensive listing of additional recent capital city relocations!
Capital Relocation RationaleFinally, countries sometimes change their capital because they expect some type of political, social, or economic benefit. They hope and expect that the new capitals will surely develop into cultural gems and hopefully make the country a more stable place.