The Corinthian Canal

The narrow piece of land that joins the southernmost part of Greece to the mainland is called the Isthmus of Corinth. Periander built a stone track across it, so that ships could be dragged over the land from coast to coast (by large numbers of slaves). Corinth made money by charging a toll.

The Isthmus of Corinth, as this narrow stretch of land is called, has played a very important role in the history of Greece economically and strategically. It is the only land bridge between the country's north and south.

This basic fact let to the birth of an important city, Corinth, at its southern edge. There were times when the influence of Corinth extended beyond the Saronic Gulf to the Aegean Sea and beyond the Gulf of Corinth to the Adriatic.

Hence, two important ports made their appearance in antiquity on both sides of the Isthmus - Lechaion on the Gulf of Corinth, and Kenchreai on the shores of the Saronic Gulf.

But, how would you get one ship from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf and vice versa? The question plagued the seafaring Greeks since very early times. It was first solved towards the end of the 7th century BCE, or at the beginning of the 6th century, by a daring decision which led to the greatest of technical construction works in early Greece: the building of the Diolkos or Slipway.

Between 1956 and 1962, the Greek Archaeological Society carried out excavations designed to trace the course of the Diolkos. The greater part of the Slipway, which in fact ran all the way from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf, was brought to light.

The Diolkos was a roadway with a width of 10 meters at the starting point on the Gulf of Corinth. The stone paving began at the very edge of the sea. Ships were taken to this starting point and there dragged onto the Diolkos. These ships rested initially on wooden cylinders and were then transferred to a special wheeled vehicle.

To reduce the weight of the ship as far as possible, it was unloaded before being hoisted onto the Diolkos and the unloaded commodities were taken by ordinary road to the other end of the Isthmus. Narrowing to between 3.50 and 6 metres after its starting point the Slipway was paved with porous stone throughout its length. Two deep parallel grooves, which ran at a distance of 1.50 metres from each other, marked the Diolkos.

Thus, the ship was dragged all across the Isthmus. On reaching the Slipway’s terminus on the Saronic Gulf, it was lowered into the sea, the cargo was loaded again, and the ship continued with its journey. This arrangement did not merely speed up traffic. It also enabled ships moving between the Central and Eastern Mediterranean to avoid the rough seas almost unavoidable in a voyage round the Peloponnese.

The Diolkos was repeatedly repaired in ensuing centuries and remained in use until the days of Augustus, though the appearance of ever-larger ships curtailed its usefulness. There is hardly any mention of its use in later centuries, and then only in connection with warlike activities.

Cutting through the Isthmus
The use of the Diolkos was difficult and expensive at all times and proved impossible with larger ships. Hence, in ancient days already, people envisaged cutting a canal across the Isthmus, so as to link the two Gulfs permanently and make it possible for all ships at all times to avoid the dangerous journey past Cape Maleas, off South Peloponnese.

The ancient Greeks had of course, considered the possibility of digging ? canal through the Isthmus. The first to look into the matter was Periander, tyrant of Corinth, who drew up ? plan for ? canal in 602 BC. Subsequent planners included Demetrius Poliorcetes, Julius Caesar and Caligula. These plans were later adopted by Nero, who in 67 AD announced to the spectators at the Isthmian Games that he was going to join the two seas by digging ? canal through the Isthmus; indeed, he went so far as to cut the first turf himself, with ? golden pick, and to carry the first basket of earth on his back. But his plans came to nothing, as did those of Herodes Atticus, the Byzantines and the Venetians in later times.

Greek and French engineers using the most advanced machinery of the day built the canal we see today in 1882-1893. General supervision of the enormous undertaking was in the hands of General Stepan ??pp, aide-de-camp to the King of Italy. The Greek Corinth Canal Company, whose president was Andreas Syngros, completed the project. The canal is 6,343 m. in length. It has ? width of 24.60 m. at surface level and 21.30 m. at the seabed, and in some places its sides are 79 m. high. The canal is crossed by road and railway bridges, while communications between Central Greece and the Peloponnese are also served by two ‘ferries’ in the form of submersible bridges, one at either end.