نهادهای اصلی حکومتی مانند وزارتخانهها و ادارات مرکزی معمولاً در پایتخت قرار دارند. پایتخت محل استقرار حکومت است و این مسئله بهطور قانونی و معمولاً در قانون اساسی کشورها وضع شدهاست. در کشورهای پادشاهی، شاهان و دربار ایشان معمولاً در پایتخت سکونت دارند.
ریشهٔ واژهٔ پایتخت نیز با همین امر مربوط است؛ یعنی «پایِ تختگاهِ شاه»؛ یعنی در زمانهای قدیم، محل سکونت یک شاه اصلیترین شاخص یک شهر برای پایتخت شدن بود.[نیازمند منبع]
در قدیم نامهای دیگری نیز در معنی پایتخت بهکار میرفت، همچون «دارالخلافه» و «دارالسلطنه» و «آستانه».
منظور از آستانه، محل ورود به دربار پادشاه بود که محل این ورودی دربار رفتهرفته معنای خود شهر سکونت شاه یعنی پایتخت را به خود گرفت.
آستانه در زمان عثمانی لقب و مترادف شهر استانبول بود و همین واژه فارسی هنوز در زبانهای آسیای میانه در معنی پایتخت بهکار میرود، چنانکه دولت جدید قزاقستان پایتخت تازهساز خود را به آستانه یعنی پایتخت نام نهادهاست.[نیازمند منبع]
News media often use the name of a capital city as an alternative name for the country of which it is the capital or of the government that is seated there, as a form of metonymy. For example, "relations between Washington and London" refer to "relations between the United States and the United Kingdom".
The word capital derives from the Latincaput (genitive capitis), meaning ‘head’.
In several English-speaking states, the terms county town and county seat are also used in lower subdivisions. In some unitary states, subnational capitals may be known as ’administrative centres’. The capital is often the largest city of its constituent, though not always.
Although many capitals are defined by constitution or legislation, many long-time capitals have no legal designation as such: for example Bern, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London, Paris, and Wellington. They are recognised as capitals as a matter of convention, and because all or almost all the country's central political institutions, such as government departments, supreme court, legislature, embassies, etc., are located in or near them.
Tehran, capital and largest city of Iran, and the capital of the Persian empires in the last two centuries
Counties in the United Kingdom have historic county towns, which are often not the largest settlement within the county and often are no longer administrative centres, as many historical counties are now only ceremonial, and administrative boundaries are different.
These cities satisfy one or both of the following criteria:
A deliberately planned city that was built expressly to house the seat of government, superseding a capital city that was in an established population center. There have been various reasons for this, including overcrowding in that major metropolitan area, and the desire to place the capital city in a location with a better climate (usually a less tropical one).
A town that was chosen as a compromise among two or more cities (or other political divisions), none of which was willing to concede to the other(s) the privilege of being the capital city. Usually, the new capital is geographically located roughly equidistant between the competing population centres.
Wellington became the capital city of New Zealand in 1865. It lies at the southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, the smaller of New Zealand's two main islands (which subsequently became the more populous island,) immediately across Cook Strait from the South Island. The previous capital, Auckland, lies much further north in the North Island; the move followed a long argument for a more central location for parliament.
Managua, Nicaragua, chosen to appease rivals in León and Granada, which also were associated with the liberal and conservative political factions respectively
Jefferson City, Missouri was selected as the state capital in 1821, the year after Missouri was admitted to the Union, due to its central location within the state. It is almost halfway between Missouri's two largest cities, Kansas City in the west and St. Louis in the east, although Kansas City was not incorporated until 1850.
Canada: the federal capital city Ottawa is located in the province of Ontario, which has its own provincial capital in Toronto. Ottawa's municipal government is overseen by the province and not by the federal government or a separate federal capital territory.
France: The French constitution does not recognise any capital city in France. By lawParis is the seat of both houses of Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate), but their joint congresses are held at the Palace of Versailles. In case of emergency, the seat of the constitutional powers can be transferred to another town, in order for the Houses of Parliament to sit in the same location as the President and Cabinet.
Germany: The official capital Berlin is home to the parliament and the highest bodies of the executive branch (consisting of the ceremonial presidency and effective chancellery). Various ministries are located in the former West German capital of Bonn, which now has the title "Federal City". The Federal Constitutional Court has its seat in Karlsruhe which, as a consequence, is sometimes called Germany's "judicial capital"; none of Germany's highest judicial organs are located in Berlin. Various German government agencies are located in other parts of Germany.
New York: Much like Illinois, the state capital and government are headquartered in Albany, but many officials are mostly active in or live in New York City.
Monaco, Singapore, and the Vatican City, as well as the territories of Hong Kong and Macau, are city-states, and thus do not contain any distinct capital city as a whole. However, in Singapore's case, the main judiciary and legislative offices are located in the Downtown Core. Similarly, while Victoria was the capital of colonial Hong Kong, the district of Central serves as the seat of government offices today.
Capitals that are not the seat of government
There are several countries where, for various reasons, the official capital and de facto seat of government are separated:
Philippines: Presidential Decree No. 940, issued on June 24, 1976, designates the whole of National Capital Region (NCR) as the seat of government, with the City of Manila as the capital. This is because the region has many national government institutions aside from Malacanang Palace and some agencies or institutions that are located within the capital city.
Some historical examples of similar arrangements, where the recognized capital was not the official seat of government:
With the rise of modern empires and the nation-state, the capital city has become a symbol for the state and its government, and imbued with political meaning. Unlike medieval capitals, which were declared wherever a monarch held his or her court, the selection, relocation, founding, or capture of a modern capital city is an emotional event. For example:
The selection or founding of a "neutral" capital city, one unencumbered by regional or political identities, was meant to represent the unity of a new state when Ankara, Bern, Canberra, Madrid, Ottawa and Washington became capital cities. Sometimes, the location of a new capital city was chosen to terminate squabbling or possible squabbling between various entities, such as in the cases of Canberra, Ottawa, Washington, Wellington and Managua.
The British-built town of New Delhi represented a simultaneous break and continuity with the past, the location of Delhi being where many imperial capitals were built (Indraprastha, Dhillika, and Shahjahanabad) but the actual capital being the new British-built town designed by Edwin Lutyens. Wellington, on the southwestern tip of the North Island of New Zealand, replaced the much more northerly city of Auckland to place the national capital close to the South Island and hence to placate its residents, many of whom had sympathies with separatism.
During the American Civil War, tremendous resources were expended to defend Washington, D.C., which bordered on the Confederate States of America (with the Commonwealth of Virginia), from Confederate attack even though the relatively small federal government could easily have been moved elsewhere. Likewise, great resources were expended by the Confederacy in defending the Confederate capital from attack by the Union, in its exposed location of Richmond, Virginia, barely 100 miles (160 km) south of Washington, D.C.
The capital city is usually but not always a primary target in a war, as capturing it usually guarantees capture of much of the enemy government, victory for the attacking forces, or at the very least demoralization for the defeated forces.
In ancient China, where governments were massive centralized bureaucracies with little flexibility on the provincial level, a dynasty could easily be toppled with the fall of its capital. In the Three Kingdoms period, both Shu and Wu fell when their respective capitals of Chengdu and Jianye fell. The Ming dynasty relocated its capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where they could more effectively control the generals and troops guarding the borders from Mongols and Manchus. The Ming was destroyed when Li Zicheng took their seat of power, and this pattern repeats itself in Chinese history, until the fall of the traditional Confucian monarchy in the 20th century. After the Qing dynasty's collapse, decentralization of authority and improved transportation and communication technologies allowed both the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists to rapidly relocate capitals and keep their leadership structures intact during the great crisis of Japanese invasion.
National capitals were arguably less important as military objectives in other parts of the world, including the West, because of socioeconomic trends toward localized authority, a strategic modus operandi especially popular after the development of feudalism and reaffirmed by the development of democratic and capitalistic philosophies. In 1204, after the Latin Crusaders captured the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, Byzantine forces were able to regroup in several provinces; provincial noblemen managed to reconquer the capital after 60 years and preserve the empire for another 200 years after that. The British forces sacked various American capitals repeatedly during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, but American forces could still carry on fighting from the countryside, where they enjoyed support from local governments and the traditionally independent civilian frontiersmen. Exceptions to these generalizations include highly centralized states such as France, whose centralized bureaucracies could effectively coordinate far-flung resources, giving the state a powerful advantage over less coherent rivals, but risking utter ruin if the capital were taken. In their military strategies, traditional enemies of France such as Prussia (in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871) focused on the capture of Paris.
^Boxall, Sheryl (2008). DeRouen, Karl; Bellamy, Paul (eds.). International Security and the United States: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2. Westport, Connecticut, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 728. ISBN978-0-275-99255-2.