10 Cities That Were Once Capitals
Cities are amazing, and as the world continues to urbanize (quite rapidly), they’re going to come under continued scrutiny by historians (as well as social and physical scientists). Cities are places where humans gather to live, work, innovate, eat, consume, travel, indulge in leisure, and learn. Cities are also reflections of the geography around them. Thus some cities are better for farming, others for living, and yet others for trading or governing. The art of governing is trickier than you might think. Throughout history, many cities have served as seats of government power, and many more have fallen out of favor as the center of political life.
Below are 10 cities that used to be capitals of important political units (whether monarchies, republics, or otherwise). As always, feel free to add your own in the ‘comments’ section. Behold:
1. Monterey (Alta California): Nestled on the south side of California’s Monterey Bay, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, is the small, affluent college town of Monterey. It’s a gorgeous little town, worthy of the tourists it attracts in droves, and it also used to be the capital city of Alta California, a vast territory of New Spain (and then Mexico) that covered most of what is now the American Southwest. Fun fact: Argentina once flew its flag over Monterey. An Argentine pirate sacked the city in 1818 and, after a week, continued up the coast to find more booty. Before he and his crew continued on their merry way, though, the Argentine made sure to hoist Argentina’s flag up Monterey’s fort flagpole (he burned the fort before he left).
2. Samarkand: Now located in Uzbekistan, has always played a central role in the Silk Road trade routes as a major commercial city, but has never felt quite comfortable being a center of governance. That changed, once, during the time of the Timurid Empire and especially the reign of Tamerlane, a Mongol emperor with a Muslim-Turkic background. As a capital city, Samarkand flourished culturally, but the financial health of the city was questionable. Today Samarkand has just over half 1 million people living in it, and is slowly recovering from tsarist and Soviet governance. Much of Samarkand’s splendor is still there, for all who are adventurous enough to explore Central Asia.
3. Rio de Janeiro: The sixth largest city in the Americas (North and South) and its metropolitan area is home to 12 million people. The coolest thing about Rio is that it once served as the capital of a European polity, Portugal, when the Portuguese monarchy fled the devastating Napoleonic War. Rio was also the center of the slave trade in the Americas and, somewhat paradoxically, was also the home of Brazil’s small but determined abolitionist movement. When Brazil transitioned from a monarchy to a republic, Rio remained the capital city until 1960, when Brazil decided to build a brand new capital city (Brasilia) closer to the heartland of the Brazilian state.
4. Cusco: Now in Peru, was once the capital city of the feared, loathed, and admired Inca Empire. It’s 11,000 ft above sea level (for reference, Denver is just over 5,000 above sea level). Cusco was the quintessential political city when it served as the Inca Empire’s capital. Its population was never vast, its wealth always concentrated to a few politically-connected neighborhoods, and its public spaces were built for ceremonial purposes rather than, say, open and cooperative ones. Today Cusco has just under half a million people living in it, but its blend of Spanish and Inca architecture makes it worth visiting.
5. Gao: The once mighty capital city of the once mighty Songhai Empire in West Africa, today is home to about 85,000 people and is nestled in the eastern part of Mali. Like Samarkand, Gao spent much of its life as a commercial center, and was considered one of the most prominent cities involved in trans-Saharan trade. All of this changed when Sonni Ali, a Songhai conqueror, made Gao his empire’s capital city, thus becoming a target for Songhai’s rivals. In 1951, the Moroccans conquered and sacked Gao and declared Timbuktu, the traditional political center of West Africa’s trans-Saharan trading world, as the new capital city. Interestingly, when Malian rebels tried to secede and create the country of Azawad in 2012, they named Gao their capital city.
6. Kumasi: Aside from Monterey, this is the only city your humble correspondent has actually spent any time in, and it was worth it! Kumasi is the bustling political, cultural, and economic center of the Ashanti homeland, located in south-central Ghana. Home to just over 2 million people, the Ghanaian state has gone to great lengths to incorporate Kumasi’s distinct cultural heritage into its nation-building efforts. The Ashanti Empire was probably the most powerful empire in all of West Africa during the 18th century. It owed much of its strength to the slave trade, and when the United Kingdom decided the slave trade was immoral, it began picking fights with Asanteland. The two sides fought three major wars during the course of the 19th century, and even today Asanteland sits on the fence when it comes to Ghana. Kumasi was the capital of the Ashanti Confederacy from 1695-1957.
7. Lübeck: Located in what is now northern Germany, was the capital city of the Hanseatic League, a major trading confederation in the 13th and 14th centuries. From its perch along the Baltic Sea and the Trave River, Lübeck led a revival of trading fortunes for not only members of the Hanseatic League but everybody else in the broader Baltic region, too. The city was considered one of the most beautiful and influential cities in all of Europe during the Middle Ages. The Hanseatic League cannot be described by any terms we have today for political units, but confederation comes closest (even though it wasn’t technically a confederation either). So Lübeck was more like the primus inter pares among commercial cities in the Baltic. Today the city of Lübeck is home to about 220,000 people and largely known for its - surprise! - medieval architecture.
8. Aachen: A German resort town of just over half a million people today, it is located on the border of both Belgium and the Netherlands, but during the Middle Ages it served as the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire, or at least the place where most of the Emperors resided and were crowned. Like the Hanseatic League, the Holy Roman Empire is tough to categorize. Favored by Charlemagne, Aachen was as close to a capital city as you can get for the HRE until the mid 16th century, when Frankfurt’s (further east of Aachen and closer to the center of the Holy Roman Empire) gradual ascension to the center of Germanic life came to full fruition. In 1944, Aachen became the first German city to fall to the Allies.
9. Kyoto: The capital of Japan for 1,000 until the capital was moved to Tokyo in the mid-19th century. Although there were periods of decentralization in Japan during the 2,000-year time frame, Kyoto remained the cultural capital of Japanese life throughout periods of warfare and political fracture. It wasn’t until the Japanese state underwent intense nation-building efforts in the mid-19th century that Kyoto lost its cultural stranglehold on Japanese life. One interesting tidbit to note, for various reasons, is that this vast, medieval metropolis was modeled after the ancient Chinese capital city of Chang’an.
10. Chang’an: Also known as Xi’an, Chang'an served as the capital city for at least 10 separate Chinese dynasties spread out over a period of millenia. That said, Xi'an is isn't exactly on the same ground Chang'an was on, but because it's in the same vicinity, modern and pop culture references often refer to Xi'an rather than Chang'an, though they were two distinct cities. Chang’an is the home of the Terracotta Army. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), Chang’an became one of the largest cities in the world, perhaps serving as a home to over 1 million people. The city was the political, economic, and cultural capital of China (no small feat) until warlords sacked the city in 880 BC and 906 BC. When political elites packed up and left for good in 907 BC, commercial and cultural elites followed close behind, suggesting that the Tang political economy was based more on rent-seeking than on property rights, The devastation of the barbarian hordes was so great that Chang’an actually disappeared: farmers today plow their fields atop the ruins of this once-thriving capital city.