The Corinth Canal and Its Story
By “Awake!” correspondent in Greece
THE Mediterranean country of Greece has an unusual canal. It does not claim to rival the great canals in northern European countries nor the famous Suez Canal in Egypt. Yet this canal of Greece is unique. It joins the Saronic Gulf in the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth, with an outlet to the Adriatic Sea and to ports of other European countries. Therefore it is of tremendous importance to the Greek economy.
In 1982 the Corinth Canal completed a hundred years since its modern-day construction was begun. On this occasion the Greek news media stressed in a most impressive way the benefits derived from it. However, we wanted to learn more about the canal than what could be gleaned from mere press stories. So we set off from Athens one sunlit morning to visit the Canal Administration headquarters at Isthmia of Corinth.
At our destination, the director of the canal earnestly answered our questions. He particularly stressed various improvements that could render the canal, as he said, “an imposing human achievement of even greater importance not only for Greece but also for Europe generally.” He also kindly reviewed with us the background of the making of this important canal.
Corinth’s Wealth and the Isthmus
In the ancient world Corinth was renowned. It owed its grandeur and wealth to the narrow strip of land that separates the Ionian Sea from the Aegean Sea. How so? Well, back then ships were hauled across the narrow strip of the isthmus. They were moved over a pathway called diolkos, which was paved with flagstone overlaid with pieces of wood that were smeared with fat. Thus the ships avoided the risks of circumnavigating the Peloponnese. Especially was there danger at the southernmost point of Peloponnese where bad weather and rough seas often are encountered at Cape Malea.
As you can imagine, though, for all its advantages, hauling ships overland across the narrow strip of the isthmus did not come cheap. Merchants had to pay very costly port tolls, which were the most important income of Corinth.
Additional income was received from merchants who, until they could get their ships across the isthmus, stayed in Corinth. There many of them indulged in luxurious and loose living, spending considerable amounts of money. They also made gifts to the temples and sacrifices to the pagan gods. All of this made Corinth one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient world, a renowned and voluptuous city, where the vices of the East and West met and mingled.
Early Proposals for a Canal
In the seventh century B.C.E. the tyrant of Corinth, Periander, one of the Seven Wise Men of ancient Greece, conceived a plan for constructing a canal at this narrow strip of land between the Peloponnese and continental Greece. If this increased the ship traffic, it would increase his revenue collected from tolls. Yet he abandoned his effort. Why?
Out of fear of arousing the anger of the gods, because an oracle by the Pythia at Delphi said: “Do not furnish Isthmus with a tower, nor dig it through (make a canal through).” It is reported that this oracle had been prompted by the priests of the Corinthian temples. They feared that opening a canal for quick passage of ships would cause them to lose their rich donations and gifts because merchants would no longer have any reason to stay in Corinth.
The possibility of a canal was revived in 307 B.C.E. by Demetrius the Besieger. But he, too, abandoned the idea when the Egyptian engineers whom he had brought to do the job assured him that there was a major problem. They said that there was a difference between the water level of the Corinthian Gulf and that of the Saronic Gulf. So they warned that upon cutting the piece of land through to make the canal, the waters of the Gulf of Corinth would pour into the Saronic Gulf, inundating the area and blotting out nearby islands.
Early Construction Attempts Fail
After Corinthia became a Roman province, Julius Caesar and, later, Caligula laid plans for cutting through the isthmus. Based on these plans, Nero started work on a canal in 67 C.E., using 6,000 slaves and convicts.
However, this attempt came to a halt when Nero had to return to Rome, where an insurrection broke out against him. Shortly afterward Nero died, and the canal work was abandoned. In subsequent years Herodes Atticus and later on the Byzantines made some efforts toward cutting through the isthmus. Their efforts, too, did not succeed. The same was true with the Venetians, who made a start at digging but soon gave up.
The Canal Finally Completed
As you can see, though, from the picture on page 25, the Corinth Canal now exists. How was construction finally completed? After the Greek revolution in 1821, Ioannes Kapodistrias, the first president of Greece, discerned the importance of a Corinth canal for the development of Greece. He assigned the project to a French engineer, but again—this time for economic reasons—the project had to be given up.
Finally, after the opening of the Suez Canal, the Greek government (in November 1869) enacted a law about “cutting through the Corinth Isthmus.” Various modifications and additions were made to this law and, after lengthy negotiations, work on the canal started on May 5, 1882. Interestingly, though proposals were made for three different cuts, the one finally chosen was the same as decided on by Nero’s engineers. Take another look, though, at the picture on page 25 showing the completed canal. Can you imagine what a task it was to accomplish this back before the turn of the century?
The Canal Administration kindly provided us with details concerning the actual work of cutting the isthmus. For example, we learned the following: Some 2,500 workers were engaged for about ten years, using the best machines available at the time. They dug out some 33 million cubic feet (930,000 cu m) of earth and rock. The canal is approximately 4 miles (6 km) long. Its slopes reach 248 feet (76 m) above sea level at certain points. The breadth of the canal is 81 feet (25 m) at the surface of the sea and 70 feet (21 m) at the sea bottom. The tremendous job of cutting through the Corinth Isthmus was completed, and opening ceremonies were held on August 7, 1893.
In recent times about 10,000 ships have used the canal every year. In general, crossing by the canal is preferable because it is economical as far as fuel consumption is concerned and it saves valuable time. Furthermore, it avoids circumnavigating the Peloponnese.
So this is the story of the Corinth Canal. Should you ever visit Greece, we would recommend that you not fail to visit it. Perhaps on your way to the remains of ancient Corinth, which is of great Biblical interest, you could stop and look over the canal. Especially when ships sail through the canal, you will see something that is amazingly impressive.
[Blurb on page 26]
A plan for constructing a canal at this narrow strip of land was conceived in the seventh century B.C.E.