This is partly motivated by the question of whether or not Jerusalem is Israel's capital, but my question is broader.

Why should a state have a single, well-defined "capital city"? Why does it matter whether of not other states "recognize" this city as the state's capital? What does it mean to be a "capital" of a state?

Of course, there are the practical considerations: the "capital" is where the government institutions are located – the residence of the head of state, the legislature, the main ministries, the supreme court etc. But that is a very "factual" definition — it does not depend on any formal recognition. By this definition, (West) Jerusalem would be the actual capital of Israel, since the main government institutions are situated there.

But why, then, does it matter which city is formally declared the capital of a state? And why does it matter whether this is formally "recognized" by foreign states? There are quite a few anomalies: in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is the official capital of the state, yet most government institutions are located in The Hague. (All foreign state recognize this; yet would it matter much to the Dutch if a foreign power stopped recognizing Amsterdam as the capital, and declared that The Hague is the "true capital"?) On the other hand, South Africa appears to have several capitals: the administrative capital is Pretoria, the legislative capital is Cape Town, and the judicial capital is Bloemfontein. And in Switzerland no city has the official status of Capital City. So why does it matter that a state should have a single formal "Capital"?

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    This is based on a false premise. See e.g. List of countries with multiple capitals. (Obviously in practice buildings like embassies must be located in particular places, and a country must locate its parliament, executive, and other institutions somewhere, but there is no requirement for everything to be in the same place.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 8:49
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    There needn't be a formal capital! And certainly not a single, well-defined, internationally-recognised one. So why are you asking why there must be a formal capital? Or do you want to know why some countries have capitals? If you want to ask something else, edit your question.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 8:51
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    @q010 Why are people so much concerned with what happens in Israel? ;) Apart from this, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital implies recognizing lots of other things - notably the Israel's sovereignty over this territory (which some consider disputed or even occupied.)
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 9:23
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    Contrary to the seemingly popular internet opinion/factoid that Switzerland has no capital, Bern is legally named as the seat of the Swiss Parliament and the federal government. But this does not really affect your question.
    – xngtng
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 11:37
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    The question contains several examples demonstrating that the underlying premise of the question is false. It's difficult to understand why you've asked the question. Since you recognize that many countries don't have "a single...capital" why do you assume that having one is somehow important?
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 12:18

6 Answers 6


A country doesn’t need an official capital. Arguably some countries don't have a de jure but only a de facto capital.

In foreign policy legitimacy is derived from recognition by other countries. Sometimes countries don't recognise other countries, some of their territorial claims, or who their legitimate government is. All of which affects what they can or cannot do on the international stage, decisions to engage in military conflicts, trade relations, and much more.

On a more practical note, despite modern communication face-to-face meetings are still valuable and being on the ground has certain advantages. Thus embassies still exist. Diplomats from foreign countries have meetings with diplomats from the host country and also with diplomats from various other countries. Being in the same place is easier for everyone and thus when many embassies are placed in Tel Aviv it does create real-world inconvenience for Israel's foreign ministry.

  • More to the point all nations have governments (specifically one government or they aren't nations) and those governments meets, and in almost all cases meet in one place. That place is the capital, at least de facto. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 3:49

You give several examples of cases where it is not the case, so you are somewhat disproving your own premise.

You write that you were motivated by the question of Israel. Israel is a very special case in this regard. This is mainly because the city that Israel considers its capital, Jerusalem, is certainly de facto a part of Israel, but the legitimacy of that claim is not universally supported.

Embassies are usually located only in capital cities, so locating one's embassy in one city vs. another is taking a position on where the capital of that country is, but Israel is the only country I am aware of where that is currently in dispute. (I say currently because, when the German Democratic Republic was still around, the status of East Berlin as part of it was not uncontentious either.)

This question prompted me to query OpenStreetMap for all embassies in the world. You can see that there are certainly some outliers; some may be data errors, some appear to be "branch embassies" or similar, but some are harder to explain.


It is possible that in our generation, due to the advancement in communication technologies, there is no need for a capital, and probably also not for official government buildings, the parliament and the supreme court can both be Zoom platforms, and the executive leader of the country can stay in his bedroom, from where he ran for office.

Until a few generations ago, countries (especialy large ones) needed a concentrated governmental "base" from where to operate - lacking the forms of communication we enjoy today.

Take into consideration that most countries also didn't have static country borders since they constantly fought to expand their territories.

If we tie it to the ancient empires, then the whole notion of having capitals makes a lot more sense and becomes a lot more necessary. In the ancient civilized world, there was no point in ruling over a place that wasn't within walking distance of a fresh water source. Cities and towns were formed around water sources, and empires fought to conquer cities - not land. Each city was a totaly seperate community, and when the leader of one city managed to conquer another city, that made him into an empire. Cities also chose to belong to empires, as it was safer to belong to a strong empire, than to be fought over by two empires. So, the city which ruled over many other cities, was the capital.

Regarding Israel; Recognition in Jerusalem as Israel's capital, is de facto recognition in the legitimacy of the establishment of the State of Israel on the foundations of the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. And not just as a DP camp for holocaust survivers, on the empty beaches of the mediterrainean.

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    Your mention of "ancient empires" does not explain why a medieval successor of these empires - the Holy Roman Empire - did not have a capital for four centuries, until Karl IV. settled in Prague in the 14th century. You can also reign by being permanently on the move. (And that is somehow mirrored by the European parliament today, which moves forth and back between Brussels and Strassbourg each month.)
    – ccprog
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 12:46
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    @ccprog Did they have a central location for the government but just not call it a capital.
    – Joe W
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 12:58
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    @ccprpg the HRE, despite the name is not the successor of the Roman Empire. The emperor was a figurehead and it did not function as an empire (a monarchy) at all. How it performed was not unlike how the states of the US did in the early 19th century: a weak central government with all political, legal, and military affairs delegated to the states. The HRE functioned as a confederation so did not need to have a location that all political affairs where dealt with.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 16:26
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    @uberhaxed You are talking about the late medieval state of affairs. Up to the Staufen house the emperors were emperors.
    – ccprog
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 17:47
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    @JoeW No. The emperor traveled, and the court and chancellory traveled with him. One year, they were in Aachen, the next in Genoa, and another one in Worms.
    – ccprog
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 17:50

Some countries don't have capitals.

One of the most prominent examples is Japan (the capital is wherever their Emperor lives, and he moves residence once in a while).

The designation of capital is primarily symbolic, sometimes for historical reasons. There are some practical considerations as well, for example, some country's constitution specifies that government office must be located in a certain place (effectively making it the political centre and the capital).

The issue of Jerusalem is largely symbolic. Whether the Israeli government is stationed in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem does not in any way affect its daily function (everything is done on computer these days anyway). I suspect the Israeli far-right would try to claim Jerusalem even if it is not the country's capital, the issue of capital is just a legal pretense for the claim.

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    Though in the last 1300 years the seat of the tenno has moved precisely twice, which is rather less often that most countries have changed their capital. Arguably Japan does have a capital and the emperor moves to it - that is a reasonable interpretation of the Meiji Restoration at least. Japanese historiography always assumes there is a capital, but that it sometimes moves. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 6:31
  • All of it is "largely symbolic", but that is the Q as I understand it: why it still matters? On the symbolic side of things, being a religious (or historic) capital might matter more than anything practical; Jerusalem obviously falls into this category (practically, much of Israeli administration is in Tel Aviv or elsewhere), and its support in that role extends far beyond "far-right": it's almost unanimous amongst Jews.
    – Zeus
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 8:30

As others have already pointed out, capitals are mostly just an administrative convenience, but it's worth mentioning that in the past administrative convenience actually produced the opposite effect - an Itinerant Court

Quote from wikipedia:

It was an alternative to having a capital city, a permanent political centre from which a kingdom is governed. Especially medieval Western Europe was characterised by a political rule where the highest political authorities frequently changed their location, bringing with them parts of the country's central government on their journey. Such a realm therefore had no real centre, and no permanent seat of government. Itinerant courts were gradually replaced from the thirteenth century, when stationary royal residences began to develop into modern capital cities.

Since feudalism was so de-centralized and the highest ruler's authority could be so easily undermined or forgotten, they needed to move around constantly to assert their rule, which includes laws and administrative practices as well. The rise of centralization and authoritarianism naturally coincided with the desire for a central location for these same assertions of rule and law.


As others have pointed out, the premise of the question is wrong in a pedantic sense but I'll see past that.

Why is it so contentious which is viewed the capital city? Take as example two especially contentious regions:

  • what Isreal considers its territory and
  • what the People's Republic of China considers its territory.

In both cases there's absolutely no agreement how many countries there are (or should be) in that region and what areas belongs to which. Even factions within the Israeli nation and the Palestinian nation have very different ideas on that. The same goes for factions on the island of Taiwan.

So the real questions are:

  • Is Jerusalem part of Israel?
  • Is China represented by the People's Republic of China or by the Republic of China? Or are these two different countries with a border in between them?

Any country who accepts that Jerusalem is the captial of Israel implicitly accepts that Jerusalem is part of Israel. Likewise any country that accepts Beijing or Taipei as the capital of China or puts an embassy there takes a stance on the conflict.

The political, economic and military implications are highly significant for any country that makes those choices.

In a general sense, recognizing what another country considers its capital is a matter of respect.

If a random Joe says the capital of the USA is New York or that of The Netherlands is The Hague, people from that country might already get mad. If deviations (whether mistakes or deliberate) in what's marked as capital happen on maps or in textbooks, the affected government often protests and sometimes retaliates. At the extreme end, if you have an embassy in Taipei, you imply (in the eyes of the PRC) that you consider Taipei the capital of China; this will cost you billions in investment opportunities.

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