Robert Fisk: Canberra, Ankara and other 'fake' capitals

Saturday 13 November 2010 01:00

Just up behind my Beirut home is a narrow, shady laneway called Makhoul Street. And in Makhoul Street, there is a small shop with a rusting door behind which an Armenian sells ancient postcards of Beirut.

There is a picture of the port, the rear of a steam loco protruding from a small station. There is a tree-lined street with horses pulling a covered cart, Lebanese men wearing the old Ottoman tarbush, the distant roof of the St George Maronite cathedral. But it's the postmark that catches my attention, dated 11 October 1906. "Beirut, Syria," it says.

For of course, in the dying days of the Ottomans, Beirut was in a land whose regional capital was Damascus. True, the French were there in force under the political ruins of what were called the "capitulations" – French authorities ran the "Levant" post office – but the "Lebanese" regarded Damascus as their principal city. So what makes a city? Does it, in the words of a friend, "have to have a river" (or so, by extension, a seaboard)? Or is it an invention? A city must have a cathedral – or, I suppose, a grand mosque – but how do you define a capital?

Well, there's Baghdad (the Tigris) and Cairo (the Nile) and the Arab seaboard capitals – Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, of course – and, I suppose, the little Gulf princelets (as I call them), but how can you call Riyadh a capital of Saudi Arabia? Drab, hauntingly lifeless, surly in a religious sort of way, Riyadh is awful. Surely it should be Dhahran-Dammam, the great Saudi oil city by the sea. And how can we really regard the Germanised city of Ankara as the capital of Turkey when in our hearts – Turkish hearts, too – it must be the abandoned capital of Istanbul-Constantinople-Byzantium with its Roman-Crusader-Caliphate past? Damascus. Yes, but how many readers know its river? Well it's a stinky old sewer called the Barada. Hmm...

But we "outsiders" are capable of moving our capitals around. Some of them are ridiculous. Toronto, the business heart of Canada (originally called York) should be its capital – as indeed it was once the capital of "Upper Canada". But the Canadians had to settle on Ottawa, halfway between Toronto and Montreal, so that the Francophones didn't get pissed off (Ottawa being right next to the province of Quebec). Karachi was the capital of Pakistan – it is the business capital – but the "real" capital is the dead "new" city of Islamabad, a kind of middle-class extension of Rawalpindi.

Travel far further. The capital of Australia should be Sydney (or Melbourne) but, instead, I had to drive into the hotlands not long ago to the old hill station which is now called Canberra, all smart streets, university campuses and tiresome government ministries. This is ridiculous. Even worse is Brazil. The business centre of Sao Paulo is "my" capital of Brazil. But no, the Brazilians had to invent their distant capital of "Brasilia" so that – in the words of a Sao Paulo woman on my last visit – "the politicians could escape from the people". I should add that when Napoleon occupied Portugal, Brazil furnished the European royal family with a capital – in Brazil! And if the Turkish Ottomans hadn't genocided the Armenians, maybe the Armenian capital would be further to the west than Yerevan.

Old Europe (as Rumsfeld infamously called it) is rather more orderly. London is on the Thames, Dublin on the Liffey, Paris on the Seine. But where is the great waterway through Madrid? Surely not the canalised Manzanares? Or Brussels – does the river Senne count? No problem with Amsterdam/Copenhagen/Stockholm/Oslo/Helsinki/Tallinn, etc. But Berlin? The river Havel? Surely – if we are going to be on rivers – the German capital has to return to Bonn on the Rhine. Or at least take over the business centre of Hamburg.

Lisbon is OK (nice river, the Tagus); Budapest and Belgrade and other Balkan capitals are swamped in rivers and tributaries (thanks to the Danube and the Sava); Sarajevo has the Neretva. Prague (Vltava or Moldau) passes muster. Warsaw sits on the Vistula, but so does my "favourite" for Polish capital, Krakow. But you can see the problems. Edinburgh may one day be the capital of an independent "Scotland". But does the Forth really compare with Glasgow's mighty Clyde?

Let's go back to the Orient. Kabul qualifies with the Kabul River. But Tehran? Dushanbe (yes, it's the capital of Tajikistan)? Then we come to Jerusalem the Golden and – whoops – other problems. After Israel came into existence, Tel Aviv was its temporary capital but, in the late 1940s, West (or modern) Jerusalem became its capital and then – after the 1967 war – Israel declared (and illegally annexed) all of Jerusalem as its "unified and eternal capital", but forgot to move the Israeli ministry of defence from Tel Aviv. The poor old Arabs couldn't compete with this in the early years because "their" capital – after equally dodgy annexation by Jordan – was the utterly landlocked Jordanian "capital" of Amman (a truly dull village with Roman ruins and a king). It's the old UN plan for an "international" city in Jerusalem (and the memory of Jerusalem as the British mandate capital) that has allowed the Palestinians to demand East (old) Jerusalem as their capital. Under the Ottomans, Jerusalem wasn't the capital of anywhere.

Jerusalem, in one sense, is a "religious" capital – for Jews and for Muslim and Christian Palestinians. But Vatican City isn't the capital of Italy; the Saudi capital isn't Mecca and the British capital isn't Canterbury (although at least the "Christians" let Muslims visit their sacred cities; the Saudis do not). And if the Catholic capital is inside Rome, wasn't it once also at Avignon (bloody good river there, of course)? You can play this as a semi-political game. Shouldn't the "capital" of Northern Ireland really be the walled city of Derry (the Foyle being more beautiful than the Lagan) or Cork the capital of Ireland (the Lee being more romantic than the Liffey)? Hitler, of course, wanted his Germanic capital in Linz (Speer was already at work on the fake Roman-fascist pillars) in order to escape from dark, old lefty Berlin. Equally fascist Croatia extended to the Danube in Belgrade but preferred to keep its capital in gloomy, frightening Zagreb.

Whew. I guess waterways (for commercial transport and military defence) used to define capitals. "Business centres" (I mean where the crooks are all bankers bankrupting us) may move in. Who can doubt that the capital of Switzerland is really Zurich (rather than boring old Basle, with its greasy Rhine) or – again, Toronto the capital of Canada, etc, etc? I guess, in the end, the capital is where you think it is. Beirut is now the capital of the totally artificial country of Lebanon. Politically, you might say its real capital is indeed still Damascus, in "sister" Syria. Some would say – after the recent presidential visit of the elected (?) leader of Iran – that Lebanon's "real" capital is Tehran. Tough one, that.

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