Can You Move A Capital City? Egypt Is Going To Try

Here’s an easy geography question that anyone should be able to ace: hey, what’s the capital city of Egypt?

You’d think that after 4,000 years, the ancient and modern city of Cairo’s status as the unchanging centre of the country would be settled. There’#s just nowhere else that could possibly get close: it’s where the people are, it’s the largest urban area in Africa, the Middle East & the Arab world, it’s located at one of the most geographically and economically vital places in Egypt where the Nile fans out to form a vast fertile delta that supports most of the country’s agriculture, and – it’s just Cairo. Where else would you look?

So it’s a little startling to realise that if all goes well, Cairo won’t be the capital of Egypt for much longer – and so far, nobody knows the name of the city that’s going to replace it.

Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets.
Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets.

If you’re flying into Cairo with us in March of next year, you should be able to see it from your plane window: it’s currently a vast building plot dotted with half-finished skyscrapers, just-excavated lakes and building work of every kind imaginable, sprawling over 700 square kilometres of land that should eventually become the home of 6.5 million people.

It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking, with the first spade of earth being turned in 2015 – so it’s more than a bit weird that it doesn’t officially have a name yet. Despite a public competition to choose an official name and logo, the Egyptian government is staying tight-lipped – and what we have instead is the thoroughly uninspiring placeholder name “New Administrative Capital” (NAC).

Why do this at all? It’s mainly about practicality. If you’ve ever been in the middle of Cairo during rush hour, you know how crowded and chaotic it can get – with dire consequences for any government officials trying to get to & from their places of work. When you consider that Greater Cairo’s population is set to double over the next few decades, it’s easy to see how this is a problem that will only get worse. The NAC is an attempt to rationalise things a little – to create a thoroughly modern infrastructure that can handle a lot of people without buckling.

The NAC program aims to alleviate the crowdedness of Cairo.
The NAC program aims to alleviate the crowdedness of Cairo.

And really, the word “city” is the correct one to use. This isn’t just a suburb or an overgrown business park of a thing: it’ll have 21 residential districts surrounding an administrative sector and multiple business and retail developments. 

Within that, rather dizzyingly, it’ll also have a central park, a system of lakes, 18 hospitals, around 2,000 schools and colleges and other places of learning, over 1,000 mosques and churches, a 93,440-seat stadium, a theme park four times the size of Disneyland (!), a new railway connecting with the Cairo city centre, and 90 square kilometers of solar energy farms to help power everything. 

Underpinning all of this will be the latest in telecommunications, with AI using cameras to monitor water and waste disposal levels, and with city residents encouraged to report back on the state of the city using a special app…

In short: it’s a cutting-edge megaproject on a truly staggering scale

It may look like the kind of ambition (reckless or otherwise) that’s never been seen before, but it’s not that unusual for countries to create new capital cities in response to political, administrative or economic pressures. When I was born in Germany, the capital was the city of Bonn rather than the larger and more famous (but also younger) Berlin. When the country unified in 1990, a national vote was cast about which city should become the administrative capital – and Berlin won.

Historically speaking, the most recent new capital city is Ngelulmud, founded in the Pacific island nation of Palau in 2006. The city’s name means “place of fermented angelfish” – and if that doesn’t sound terribly official, it also seems that so far, everyone commutes in and nobody actually lives there – and as of the 2020 national census, the state of Melekeok which houses Ngerulmud had a population of just 318 people, making it the least-populated capital city in the world by a long, long way.

This is very unlikely to be the fate of Egypt’s NAC, considering the scale of its investment – but really, who knows? Beyond the fickle nature of where the human heart decides is homely or not, history is filled with examples of settlements that never took hold for all sorts of reasons. 

The BBC reported on one of them just this week: Malaysia’s Forest City, built by the Chinese for an eye-watering $100bn and opened in 2016. Since then, progress has been glacial: just 15% of the development has been completed, it’s already racking up debts of a further $200bn – and as a result, just 1% of the place is currently occupied:

The Malaysia’s Forest City
The Malaysia’s Forest City

“When night falls, Forest City becomes pitch dark. The enormous apartment blocks which loom over the complex each contain hundreds of apartments, but no more than half a dozen have their lights on. It’s hard to believe anyone actually lives here.

“This place is eerie,” says Joanne Kaur, one of the few residents I encounter. “Even during the day, when you step out of your front door the corridor is dark.”

She and her husband live on the 28th storey of one of the tower blocks – they’re the only ones on the whole floor. Like Mr Nazmi, they are renters and, also like Mr Nazmi, they plan to leave as soon as they can.

“I feel sorry for people who actually invested and bought a place here,” she says. “If you were to Google ‘Forest City’, it’s not what you see here today.”

This is the challenge facing the Egyptian government – to turn the technical marvels of the NAC into a place busily human enough and lived-in enough to feel like home. It’ll be the work of generations…

But surely the first thing everyone wants is a proper, human-sounding name for the place. Would you want to live in an acronym? Yeah, me neither. 

Cairo and its metropolitan area exudes a vibrant tapestry of culture
Cairo and its metropolitan area exudes a vibrant tapestry of culture

Join Wheel & Anchor next year in Egypt ancient & modern: after exploring Cairo, we’ll fly down to Luxor for a 7-night cruise up and back down the beautiful, historic Nile. More details here.


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