The City of Corinth—“Master of Two Harbours”
IF YOU look at a map of Greece, you will note that the main part of the country is made up of a peninsula and what looks like a large island in the south. Connecting the two is a narrow strip of land, about four miles [6 km] across at its narrowest point. Called the Isthmus of Corinth, it links the Peloponnesian peninsula in the south to the main part of the country to the north.
The isthmus is also important in another way. It has been called the bridge of the sea because on the east side is the Saronic Gulf, which opens to the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, and on the west side is the Gulf of Corinth, which leads to the Ionian Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the western Mediterranean. In the midst of all of this is the city of Corinth, an important stop in the apostle Paul’s missionary travels, noted in the ancient world for its prosperity, luxury, and licentious living.
A Strategic City
The city of Corinth is situated near the western edge of this vital strip of land. It is served by two ports, or harbors, one on each side of the narrow isthmus—Lechaeum on the west and Cenchreae on the east. For this reason, Greek geographer Strabo described Corinth as the “master of two harbours.” For its strategic location, the city of Corinth came to dominate an international crossroads, controlling both the north-south overland trade and the east-west maritime commerce.
Since ancient times, ships from the east (Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, and Egypt) and the west (Italy and Spain) came with their cargoes, unloaded them at one harbor, and transported them the few miles overland to the other side of the isthmus. There the cargoes were loaded on other vessels to continue their journey. Smaller crafts were hauled across the isthmus through a trackway, called the diolkos.—See box on page 27.
Why did sailors prefer the land route across the isthmus? Because this spared them the risks of a perilous 200-mile [320 km] voyage in rough seas around the storm-swept promontories of southern Peloponnese. Seamen particularly avoided Cape Malea, about which it was said: “Round Cape Malea and forget about home.”
Cenchreae—A Sunken Harbor Revealed
The port of Cenchreae, about seven miles [11 km] east of Corinth, was the terminus of the Asiatic sea-lanes. Today it is half submerged because of devastating earthquakes that struck about the end of the fourth century C.E. Strabo described Cenchreae as a busy and wealthy port, and the Roman philosopher Lucius Apuleius called it “a great and mighty haven frequented with the ships of many sundry nations.”
During Roman times, the harbor had two piers that extended into the sea like a horseshoe, creating a 450- to 600-foot-wide [150-200 m] entrance. It was capable of receiving ships up to 130 feet [40 m] long. Excavations at its southwest side unearthed parts of a temple thought to have been a sanctuary of the goddess Isis. A complex of buildings at the opposite end of the harbor was likely a sanctuary of Aphrodite. These two goddesses were considered patron deities of sailors.
Commercial shipping activities in the port may have played a role in the apostle Paul’s working as a tentmaker in Corinth. (Acts 18:1-3) The book In the Steps of St. Paul notes: “As winter drew near, the tent-makers of Corinth, who were also sail-makers, would have almost more work than they could execute. With both harbours full of ships laid up for the winter and anxious to refit while the seas were shut, the ships’ chandlers of Lechæum and Cenchreæ must have had work for almost any man who could stitch a length of sail-cloth.”
After staying in Corinth for more than 18 months, Paul sailed from Cenchreae to Ephesus about 52 C.E. (Acts 18:18, 19) Sometime in the next four years, a Christian congregation was established at Cenchreae. The Bible tells us that Paul asked Christians in Rome to provide assistance to a Christian woman named Phoebe from “the congregation that is in Cenchreae.”—Romans 16:1, 2.
Today, visitors to the cove of Cenchreae swim in crystal-clear waters amid the remains of the sunken harbor. Little do most of them realize that centuries ago this place thrived with activities, Christian and commercial. The same is true of Corinth’s other port, the harbor of Lechaeum, on the western side of the isthmus.
Lechaeum—Portal to the West
A paved street called Lechaeum Road ran directly from the agora, or marketplace, of Corinth to its western harbor, Lechaeum, 1.5 miles [2 km] away. Engineers dredged a section of the shoreline to construct the port and piled up the debris on the beach to protect moored ships from fierce winds from the gulf. At one time, this was one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have unearthed remains of a lighthouse, a statue of Poseidon holding a flame.
Along Lechaeum Road, which was protected by double walls, were sidewalks, state buildings, temples, and colonnades with shops. Here Paul must have encountered busy shoppers, idle talkers, shopkeepers, slaves, businessmen, and others—a suitable audience for his preaching activity.
Lechaeum was not only a mercantile port but also a major naval base. Some claim that the trireme, one of the most effective battleships of antiquity, was invented in Lechaeum’s shipyards by the Corinthian shipbuilder Ameinocles about 700 B.C.E. The Athenians used the trireme’s advantages in their crucial victory over the Persian navy at Salamis in 480 B.C.E.
What was once a busy port is today no more than “a series of black, reedy lagoons.” Nothing suggests that centuries ago, one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean existed here.
Corinth Challenges Christians
Besides being commercial ports, Corinth’s harbors acted as gateways opened to influences that deeply affected the people in the city. For one, these ports attracted commerce and wealth. Corinth amassed riches by collecting high port fees as well as tolls for transporting cargo and ships along the trackway. The city also levied taxes on overland traffic. Near the end of the seventh century B.C.E., State revenues amassed from duties on the city’s markets and on the use of its ports even made it possible to abolish citizen taxes.
Corinth received additional income from merchants who stayed there. Many of them indulged in luxurious and licentious revelries. Sailors also thronged to and enriched Corinth. As Strabo notes, they spent their money easily. The city’s inhabitants offered many services, including ship repair.
In Paul’s day, the city reportedly had a population of about 400,000, exceeded only by Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch of Syria. Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and Jews lived in Corinth. Through its ports, there was a constant flow of travelers, visitors to athletic games, artists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, and others. Those visitors made gifts to the temples and sacrificed to the gods. All of this made Corinth a vibrant, thriving metropolis—but at a price.
The book In the Steps of St. Paul notes: “Corinth, situated between two such ports, developed a cosmopolitanism tinged with the vices of the foreign nations whose ships lay in her harbours.” The foibles and vices of East and West met and mingled in the melting pot of the city. As a result, Corinth became morally decadent, wantonly luxurious—the most immoral and licentious city of ancient Greece. To live in the ways of the Corinthians, to be Corinthianized, had become synonymous with leading a debauched and immoral life.
Such a climate of materialism and immorality threatened the spiritual well-being of Christians. Jesus’ followers in Corinth needed to be admonished to maintain an acceptable standing in the eyes of God. Appropriately, Paul strongly condemned greediness, extortion, and moral uncleanness in his letters to the Corinthians. As you read those inspired letters, you cannot help but sense the debasing influence that Christians there had to face.—1 Corinthians 5:9, 10; 6:9-11, 18; 2 Corinthians 7:1.
Yet, Corinth’s cosmopolitanism had its advantages. The city was subject to a constant flow of ideas. Its residents were more broad-minded than people in other cities visited by Paul. “East met west in this ancient seaport town,” says a Bible commentator, “exposing its residents to every conceivable new idea, philosophy, and religion the world had to offer.” As a result, different religions were tolerated, and this evidently facilitated Paul’s preaching work there.
The two harbors of Corinth—Cenchreae and Lechaeum—contributed to the prosperity and fame of the city. The same harbors also made living in Corinth a challenge for Christians. Our modern world is similar. Corrupting influences, such as materialism and immorality, pose a spiritual threat to God-fearing individuals. Therefore, we too would do well to take to heart the inspired admonitions that Paul gave to Christians in Corinth.
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THE DIOLKOS—SHIPPING ON DRY LAND
Toward the end of the seventh century B.C.E., when plans to build a canal failed, Periander, the ruler of Corinth, built an ingenious means for shipping across the isthmus.* Called the diolkos, meaning “haul-across,” it was a trackway of flagstones with deep grooves fitted with rails of wood that were smeared with fat. Goods from ships docked at one harbor were unloaded, put on wheeled carts, and hauled by slaves over the trackway to the other. Smaller ships, sometimes with cargo aboard, were also hauled across.
For a history of the construction of the modern canal, see “The Corinth Canal and Its Story,” in Awake! December 22, 1984, pages 25-27.
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Gulf of Corinth
Port of Lechaeum
Isthmus of Corinth
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Freight ships pass through the Corinth Canal today
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Todd Bolen/Bible Places.com