Updated: Jun 18, 2022
"Connecting Worlds" - The first article in a series about the historical significance and commercial importance of the Corinth Canal in Greece
By today’s navigational standards, the Panama Canal and the Canal of Suez are by far the most recognizable canals in the world in terms of value of goods transiting through them every year. In terms of historic significance, rennervating even today, no-one can doubt China’s Grand Canal, its oldest parts dating back to the Sui Dynasty in the 6th century AD as one of humanity’s greatest infrastructural achievements through the ages. And yet, there are many more lesser – at least, in fame – canals, worldwide, that are monuments to human ingenuity and perseverance, and are critical to localized economies and trades (the Eerie Canal and the Kiel Canal first come to mind), decades, or even centuries, after they were built. It is said that to understand human history one needs to study maritime history, and canals - small and large, old and new – are a great starting point as they reflect the culmination of ambitions, dreams, engineering studies, Herculean efforts of peoples aspiring to make the world a smaller place for trade and for peace by changing the contours of the coastline to allow the sea to connect the lands that divides.
A picture in mainstream news media in October 2019 of a large cruiseship barely squeezing between two vertical slabs of limestone rock in the Corinth Canal in Greece was so awesome to this native of Greece - with long international maritime professional career that has seen big ships in “tight spots” before - that he could not resist a subsequent visit to the Corinth Canal and a meeting with the Canal’s Authority. The Fred Olsen cruiseship M/S ‘Braemar” (23,500 gross tons and 22.5m beam) crossed smoothly the Corinth Canal to the amusement of the 929 passengers onboard and the delight of the Canal’ management, as it was the largest ship ever to transit the Canal.
The Isthmus of Corinth is an seven-kilometer-long strip of land in Greece that connects mainland Greece with the Peloponnese Peninsula (the latter consisting appr. 16% of the area of Greece), and situated at approximately a ninety-minute scenic drive southwest of the Greek capital, Athens. Many ancient locations of historic import were located in Peloponnese, from the city of Sparta (Spartans, as antagonists of the Athenians in antiquity), Olympia (the birthplace of the Olympic games) and the culturally important city of Mycenae (described as “rich in gold” in Homer’s Iliad), among others. The Isthmus area itself was the location for the ancient city of Corinth, known for its culture, architecture, trade and immense wealth. It was said in antiquity, “Ού παντός πλείν είς Κόρινθον” (meaning that, not everybody could afford Corinth’s expensive lifestyle). The Isthmus of Corinth is bordered to the west by the Gulf of Corinth (Corinthian Gulf), which eventually opens up to the Ionian Sea, in the west of Greece, and the Adriatic Sea, Italy and the south of central Europe, in line with the trading lanes to the western Mediterranean Sea. On the east of the Isthmus, there is the historic Saronic Gulf (on its shores Piraeus and Athens are situated) and eventually opens up to the Aegean Sea with the Greek Islands, with the Sea of Bosporus and the Black Sea to the north, and the eastern Mediterranean Sea to the south. It’s easily evident that Corinth stood at the crossroads on the north-south axis on the Balkan Peninsula and the east-west axis of the trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea, which can partially explain the city’s importance to trade and its wealth, then and now.
While the Isthmus allowed for the overland movement of armies, goods and people, for trade- and shipping-minded people, it was an impediment as it prohibited the direct sailing of ships from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to the Aegean Sea, and it was forcing them to circumnavigate the Peloponnese Peninsula, of appr. 360 nautical miles (just over a day sailing for modern ships, but several days for sailing trading ships). And, around the 7th century BC, under Corinth’s ruler Periander (a tyrant, in the historic sense) experimentation started with building a portage path in order to move ships overland; by the 5th century BC, the Diolkos (Δίολκος, from the Greek διά, dia "across" and ὁλκός, holkos "portage machine") was a well-developed, paved with stones grooved trackway that allowed for the portage of sailing ships from one sea to another in a few short hours against the payment of tolls. The Diolkos is partially preserved today, and subject to further archaeological research. Periander was also the first to consider digging a navigable canal across the Isthmus along with many more “dreamers” in later times, including several Roman emperors. It was not until 67 A.D., however, when the Roman emperor Nero took an active interest in the project and personally broke ground for the digging of the Canal, and applied the labor of 6,000 Jewish war prisoners. Nero didn't live long enough to see this grand undertaking come to fruition, but it seems the project that he started managed to progress to a tenth of the length of the Isthmus. A relief on stone on one edge of the Canal from that time commemorates his attribution to this monumental project, and it’s still visible today for those navigating the Canal, proof that great ideas and projects may take centuries to accomplish, but they also live a permanent legacy to the generations to come.
Centuries passed and rulers came into and left from power, and although the concept of building the Canal was revitalized from time to time, it was not until the first prime minister of the newly independent Greek State in the 19th century, Ioannis Kapodistrias, full of vision and enthusiasm, commissioned a study for the construction of a canal at the location in 1830. The project deemed too expensive for the young nation to undertake and died on the vine, but the opening of the Suez Canal a couple of decades later in 1869 brought new impetus to the idea. Two corporate bankruptcies later (of two French construction companies assigned the digging) and much hard work and effort and circumstance, and the Corinth Canal was formally opened on April 23rd, 1882, in the presence of the King of Greece George I.
The Canal is at sea level at both ends, the Corinthian and the Saronic Gulfs, so there is no need for locks; however, sea currents in the Canal usually change every six hours, with the usual rate of stream approaching 2.5 knots but seldom exceeding 3 knots. The Canal cuts through limestone for most of its length, with two almost vertically (at 80º) walls appear to almost majestically frame the Canal for a great deal of its length. After the initial construction, retainer walls were built from the seabed to approximately two meters above sea level along the length of the Canal to prevent damage to the Canal from the wakes of transiting ships. Landslides are known to take place occasionally and that requires constant maintenance and dredging of the Canal.
The maximum width of the Canal that is deemed safe for navigation is 24.60 m at mean low water level (sea level), and 21.00 m at the seabed. The depth of the Canal, on its vertical axis at centerpoint, is 8.00 m at mean low water level, but the maximum permissible draft for navigation is 6.50 m. The total length of the Canal at sea level is 6,343 m, including the 540 m allocated to the ports of Possidonia and Isthmia situated at either end of the Canal (by the Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs, respectively). The maximum height of the Canal is 79 meters, but the airdraft is limited to 52.00 m as there are railway, motorway and freeway bridges crossing the Canal. Two submerged hydraulic bridges have been installed recently at either end of the Canal at sea level, allowing for local traffic to cross the Canal with minimal interruption to the daily life of the local communities.
While coming upon the relief on the rock memorializing Nero’s involvement and the commencement of first digging the Canal from two thousand years was a thrilling experience, the awe was even greater in the middle of the Canal from aboard one of the “mule” tugs towing a commercial vessel: the feeling of founded dwarfed in a rock valley rising vertically from the sea. Once there, one can appreciate why the Canal has been popular with boutique cruiseships and mega-yachts. It gives the sense of navigating via a deep tunnel. And, beyond the sentimental meaning, the crossing of the Canal is a reminder that great projects take a lot of effort and hard work and ingenuity and usually a lot of time to come to fruition; but again, great projects stand monuments to humankind’s strong will and perseverance, and can affect the lives of people millennia later. Great projects like the Corinth Canal are a reminder of all that our ancestors have done for us, whether this was Periander in the 7 century BC, Nero in the 1st century AD or Kapodistrias in the 19th century - and what our current generation is building today and passing down to future generations and whether our efforts will be equally imposing and inspiring.
This is the first in a series of articles on the Corinth Canal that will cover both the historic significance and also commercial importance of the Canal. The author is indebted to the Canal’s Management, Messrs George Zouglis and Dimitris Roussis, for their generous hospitality while visiting the Canal. To visit the Canal’s website in English please click; for information in Greek, please click here!