Once a Capital

On August 20, 2013 · 10 Comments

It must be depressing, I considered, to live in a former capital city. Once it served as the centerpiece of a sovereign nation, a focus of governance, a diplomatic hub, and now maybe only a provincial power or possibly much worse. I wondered what the saddest case might be, the one that fell the farthest and the hardest. I had a tough time narrowing it down however because of the huge number of formerly sovereign states that no longer existed. There were plenty to select amongst.

I considered several factors. Longevity was key. A city that served as a capital for centuries would score higher than one that lasting in an exalted position for only a few years. I also examined recency and tried to find instances that stretched into the 20th Century, more or less. Finally, the completeness of the fall should play a role. It’s hard to cry for Budapest or Prague — capitals of various former nations — when they continue to serve as capitals of existing nations for example.

There were so many wonderful candidates and I tried to spread my selections over a wide geography. For 12MC readers who may be wondering why I didn’t pick “city so and so” it’s only because I didn’t have enough space. I could have doubled or tripled the size of this list.


Free City of Lübeck

Lübeck was a city-state, the Free City of Lübeck, a sovereign space almost contiguously from the 13th Century until 1937. It also served as the focal point of the Hanseatic League beginning in the late Middle Ages. This defensive and commercial confederation dominated trade along the Baltic coast and beyond for centuries. The Nazis finally ended Lübeck’s sovereignty, allegedly because Hitler wanted to punish the town for slighting him a few years earlier.

Today Lübeck is split between two German states, Schleswig-Holstein (primarily) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It is the capital of neither. Lübeck dropped from multi-hundred-year sovereignty to… just another port city.



Ha’il served as the capital of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar, an Islamic monarchy lasting nearly a hundred years until 1921. The Emirate covered a big chunk of the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. The House of Saud and the Emirate’s House of Rashid bickered frequently over their respective territorial boundaries within the desolate interior, the Nejd region, without any definitive resolution until World War I. The House of Saud allied with Britain during that conflict and the House of Rashid chose the Ottomans. This weakened the Emirate of Jabal Shammar as the war concluded. The Saudi campaign of 1921, with British military assistance, erased it for good.

Today Ha’il is a provincial capital, an agricultural center, a university town, and that’s about it.



I had a particularly difficult time selecting an African example because there were so many empires that lasted for multiple centuries before being erased by infighting or by European colonialism. I think Ngazargamu (Gazargamo) would be a particularly noteworthy example. It served as the capital of the Bornu Empire in the African interior in the general vicinity of Lake Chad from the 14th Century until 1893. After Bornu’s defeat, Ngazargamu fell to ruin and decay.

Today Ngazargamu is a brown patch of rubble in the middle of nowhere.



India also included a large number of very prolific empires. I selected the Kingdom of Mysore that lasted from the 14th Century until 1947, which also had its capital in the town of Mysore (and in Srirangapatna at times). The Kingdom tussled with Britain in four separate Anglo-Mysore wars. Mysore won the first two rounds and the British won the all-important second two, lessening Mysore’s importance when the British installed a new Prince. Mysore limped along as a diminished power until joining newly-independent India in 1947.

Today Mysore is the headquarters city of the Mysore District, one of 30 such districts in India’s Karnataka state. It is also the lead city of the Mysore Division which includes a collection of several surrounding districts. However it’s not even the state capital, which is Bangalore.



I had a hard time with Oceana for an entirely different reason. Lots of south Pacific history went unrecorded so it’s hard to tell when dynasties actually began. I’ll go with Mu’a though, the capital of the Tu’i Tonga Empire which may have started as early as the 10th Century and lasted through 1865.

Today Mu’a is a small town on Tongatapu, the principal island of Tonga. Maybe 5,000 people live there. It’s not the capital. That’s Nuku’alofa.

On August 20, 2013 · 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Once a Capital”

  1. Ian says:

    What, no Philadelphia? it’s not even the capital of Pennsylvania. Also St Petersburg, Russia although still very much a grand city…

    • Well, yeh, I guess Philadelphia fits into the “why didn’t I pick city so and so” category. In a nutshell, Philadelphia didn’t make the cut based on longevity (a capital for only a couple of decades, and intermittently at that) and recentness (not since 1800). It’s still a decent example — just not up there with some of the others.

  2. David Kozina says:

    Babylon would seem to me to be a prime candidate.

  3. hipsterdoofus says:

    Another good one in Africa is Great Zimbabwe

  4. Calgully says:

    You could maybe also have included Melbourne, Australia.

    Pedants might dispute it on the basis that whilst Melbourne was the seat of Government from national federation in 1901 until 1927 (when the national capital moved to Canberra), it’s not clear whether the term national capital was ever applied to Melbourne.

    Here is the building that housed the national parliament http://goo.gl/maps/mHcTS
    it now houses the parliament of the State of Victoria.

    Of international interest is that this building in 1904 housed the world’s first national government from the international Labour movement. A precursor to the rise of leftist and communist governments around the world throughout the 20th century. This place was, in 1904, at the nucleus of a worldwide social experiment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Watson

  5. Peter says:

    Then there’s Flensburg, which served as the capital of Nazi Germany for literally a matter of days.

  6. Rhodent says:

    I’m wondering what the most recent example of a former capital is, if you exclude any disputed examples or examples that only lasted a matter of days or weeks. The most recent I can think of is Bonn which was the official capital of Bundesrepublik Deutschland until 1999 (although Berlin became the de facto capital in 1990). Today Bonn isn’t even capital of the Land it’s in (Nordrhein-Westfalen, whose capital is Düsseldorf). Can anyone think of a more recent example?

    • I was thinking similar thoughts when I was working on this one. Aden, the capital of South Yemen prior to Yemeni unification, lost its status right around that same basic time period (1990) although it remains a capital of Yemen’s Aden Governorate.

  7. Drake says:

    If you count former state capitols there can’t really be a much sadder fallen city than Detroit, former capitol of Michigan.

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