One of the issues with many nations is that people feel it necessary to top those who came before them, because it feels depressing when one’s best days are behind. One of the phenomena that one tends to find when one looks at nations over time is that many nations have had a variety of capitals over the course of their history that have moved from one place to another for various reasons, including the desire to create planned capitals that preserve regimes from the dangers of being in cities that are too large with restive populations. The urge to create new planned capitals to aid in the formation of a stable political situation is by no means something that is limited to poor nations, though Myanmar is one of many nations that has had leaders with dubious legitimacy seeking to use a planned capital (in this case Naypyitaw) as a way of bolstering its defensibility, which has become all the more important given the military’s unwillingness to refrain from overthrowing civilian governments.
It must be remembered, for the sake of fairness if nothing else, that the jokes one makes about empty planned capitals that do not exist for sound business reasons and which are filled by people obsessed with politics or who serve as bureaucrats that applies to cities like Naypyitaw, or Brazil’s Brasilia, or any other number of planned capitals whose names I would have to look up, exist as well for Washington DC. While some countries prefer to have as their capitals Primate cities like a London or a Paris, the use of a planned capital often has political reasons rather than organic reasons for existing. In the case of Washington DC, the site of the city was chosen both as a way to honor the nation’s most prominent and important founding father, George Washington, and also provided a southern-facing capital that properly reflected the early nation’s political (if not economic balance during its early decades. It seems likely that if the United States suffered dramatic political changes, that the location of the capital would be changed precisely to overturn previous political arrangements.
When one studies the location of capitals, one tends to find, unsurprisingly, that a variety of different considerations is viewed as important. During the period from Peter The Great’s time onward, for example, Russia’s capital for two centuries or so was located in St. Petersburg, a planned city built as a window to Europe, even if it was on the far Western side of the sprawling nation as a whole and by no means central to the nation itself. Florida’s capital at Tallahassee is a planned capital that was chosen as a compromise location at the boundary between the old territories of East and West Florida, a location that was only seen as central because the territory of Central and Southern Florida was as yet undeveloped pestilential swamp, and not the center of Florida’s population as is the case at present. Similarly, Harrisburg Pennsylvania serves as a central capital between the twin competing major cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh within that state, just as Ottawa serves as a compromise location between Toronto and Montreal within Canada and Canberra serves as a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne within Australia.
For me, at least, my favorite capital cities are cases where the functions of a capital are scattered between several cities as a way of dealing with the issue of federalism within a country. These nations, properly speaking, have no one capital because no one place performs all of the functions of a capital. This is the sort of situation one finds in countries like Bolivia and South Africa, and it is little surprise that both of those places have rather strong regional identities that have at times led to civil conflict and that even at present demonstrate strong fault lines within the nations. This situation is also the case when a nation is so federally constructed that the national government has little to do and so it happens to be almost irrelevant where the capital is located. At still other times, there is a great deal of instability in the location of a capital city because of issues of war, as one will find if one looks at the location of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War in the United States.
One of the notable aspects of planned capitals is that even those cities which were once capitals and have been rejected for new locations still often have enough reasons to exist to remain important cities for long periods of time. The change of the capital of Nigeria, for example, has not made Lagos an abandoned city by any means. Neither did the loss of the capital make New York City or Philadelphia unimportant. Nor has the loss of the capital from Rio de Janeiro made that city any less massive. And, to go back to the example of Myanmar, quite a few of the capitals of that country have remained important over the course of centuries as the sites chosen for capitals were done for sensible enough reasons that people had reason to live there and work there and go to school there even after the capital was moved somewhere else, as has been the case in quite a few of Myanmar’s largest cities, including Yangon, Mandalay, and Tangoo, among others. It is only in rare cases, such as the destruction of Ava by a massive earthquake, that has led cities that once had a good reason to exist and thrive as capitals to be abandoned altogether. When this happens, one can be sure that something very terrible has taken place.