This week, the 20th anniversary of the city of Astana — the new capital of Kazakhstan — coincided with me reading the opening chapters of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, about his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in the 1930s.
As he ascended the Rhine, I was struck by how the main urban centres of a highly industrialised Germany were still all strung along its great rivers. These natural arteries had shaped the design of human settlement. It was at striking odds with the 20th century practice of creating modern capitals.
Astana is only one of the most recent of a slew of capitals that were inaugurated in the century — Canberra in Australia, Brasilia in Brazil, Ankara in Turkey, Islamabad in Pakistan. What is odd about these places is that, after centuries of settlement defined principally by natural geography, these cities are located primarily based on political geography.
It is true that, in some cases — such as Astana and Ankara — a sizeable settlement already existed that was expanded upon, but the primary drive was political. These cities were either placed as close to the geographical centre of the state as possible, or (as in the case of Canberra) equidistant between rival claimants to capital status (Sydney and Melbourne).
What a strange occurrence, after natural geography’s long dominance — from the Rhineland cities to the great sea ports, the cities where the mountains meet the plains, the river mouth cities, the cities on a hill and the cities next to lakes.
Maybe cities were founded pre-20th century with scant regard for natural geography, but I can’t think of any. Can you?