London, England. Tokyo, Japan. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
They all make it on our lists of places to visit, and they’re also national capitals – each city is the seat of its own country’s government.
But how are capitals chosen, anyway?
Location is often the key. Many countries choose a geographically central capital in order to emphasize the fairness of their government; In this way, DC is less likely to be biased or appear to be biased towards one region or another. Madrid, for example, is located roughly in the center of Spain (to go one step further, in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula). When Nigeria decided to build an entirely new capital city, it placed Abuja, which had been officially named capital in 1991, at the center – a place signifying unity in a country often considered divided by its geography.
When a country prefers to choose an existing city for its capital rather than build an entirely new one, population may be the main concern. Capitals are often the most populous of the country’s cities. Today Seoul, South Korea, is home to nearly 20% of that country’s population; About a quarter of their country’s population lives in Lima, Peru, and Santiago, Chile. Indeed, when they were originally chosen as capitals, the three cities were the main population centers of their respective countries, albeit in smaller proportions than they are today. In 1949, shortly after the founding of South Korea, Seoul’s population of 1.45 million represented 7.2% of the country’s total population. On the eve of Peruvian independence in 1820, Lima had a population of approximately 64,000 out of the 1.37 million inhabitants of Peru. In the same year, after Chile’s independence, Santiago was home to about 46,000 of Chile’s population of 800,000.
Capital can also be a sign of political settlement, as in the case of the United States. Initially, members of Congress proposed that the national capital be located in Pennsylvania, specifically in Lancaster or Germantown, then an area outside of Philadelphia. They believed that the neighboring capital of Philadelphia would honor the young country’s revolutionary roots. But political intrigue halted that plan: U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, exploiting southern fears about the prospect of a northern capital (specifically, slaveholders’ fears that such a capital would leave legislators beleaguered and abolitionist) promised a southern capital in exchange for votes. in favor of his plan to reorganize the country financially. Southern states agreed to Hamilton’s plan to help pay off the war debts incurred by the North, and the capital of the United States eventually moved to what had been an undeveloped sliver of land in Virginia and Maryland – the land that became Washington, D.C.
Sometimes the country’s choice of capital is politically motivated without compromise. The name of Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, means “abode of kings” in Burmese, and the city’s origin reflects its name. Its construction began in 2004 amid Myanmar’s chaotic transition from military rule to democracy, but it’s clear that Nay Pyi Taw’s planners were never particularly concerned about accessibility: it was initially designed to house only government and military personnel.
Finally, not all countries support the idea that there should be only one national capital. Bolivia, for example, has La Paz as its administrative capital and Sucre as its constitutional capital. South Africa has three capital cities: its administrative seat is in Pretoria, its legislative seat is in Cape Town, and its judicial seat is in Bloemfontein.
Whatever country chooses for its capital, that city becomes an important symbol of the nation. While it is a home for its residents and a place for tourists to visit, it is also the city chosen to represent the entire country to the world.