The Suez and Panama canals are celebrated as two of history’s most inspirational feats of engineering. But you could argue that for sheer dogged belief they’re easily outclassed by their lesser-known cousin – Greece’s Corinth Canal. LAWRENCE SCHÄFFLER reports.
ONLY 6.5 KILOMETRES long, 24.5 metres wide and eight metres deep, the Corinth Canal cuts across a narrow isthmus that separates Greece’s Peloponnese region from the mainland. Hardly a project to rival Suez or Panama, but it deserves a place in the pantheon of civil engineering by virtue of its tortured and protracted history.
The concept was first mooted some 2500 years ago – around 600BC – when early Greek seafarers saw the commercial advantages in a canal across the isthmus. It would shave some 300 nautical miles from the voyage around the Peloponnese, significantly shortening passages between the Adriatic, the East Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It would also avoid the dangers of sailing around the Peloponnese’s treacherous southern capes.
In fact, shipping merchants of the time were already using a cumbersome method to get their vessels across the isthmus. The diolkos was a purpose-built stone slipway – about 10 metres wide – extending from the Gulf of Corinth across the isthmus to the Saronic Gulf.
Using horse and slave power, ships were dragged onto the diolkos, hoisted on to a wheeled vehicle and pulled across the isthmus. To reduce weight the cargo was unloaded and transported separately. At the other end the ships were relaunched, reloaded and the journey resumed. Understandably, the process was difficult and expensive – and couldn’t accommodate large ships.
Building a canal made perfect sense, but the job was anything but simple. Its history reveals a long litany of failures – a 2500-year gestation repeatedly foiled by superstition, lack of funds, tricky geological conditions – and war.
It begins in 602BC, when Periandros (one of the country’s top dogs) explored the feasibility of a canal. But Pythia (priestess at the Oracle of Delfi) warned that a canal would incur the Gods’ wrath, and he was persuaded to abandon the plan.
In 307BC Dimitrios Poliorkiti (King of Macedon) actually started excavations but he too abandoned them quickly when he was advised that sea god Poseidon vehemently opposed joining the Aegean and the Adriatic.
Enter the Romans. Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Caligula and Nero all had a go, despite a dark prophecy from philosopher Apollonius of Tyana that ill would befall anyone trying to dig a canal across the isthmus. Three of these rulers duly suffered violent deaths.
Caligula (Caesar’s successor) pressed ahead with the plan in 40AD despite a warning from his Egyptian consultant engineers who insisted (incorrectly) that the Corinthian Gulf was higher than the Saronic Gulf and that islands on the Aegean side would be flooded if the canal was dug. No one knows if Caligula heeded this danger – he was assassinated before any real work started.
Of the four Roman initiatives, Nero’s attempt in 67AD was the most promising. He had 6000 Jewish slaves to help with the task and reputedly started the work himself, digging with a delicate golden pick and accompanied by music. He too came to a premature, grisly end.
Fast forward to 1687, when the canal was seriously considered by the commercially-savvy Venetians after their conquest of the Peloponnese. But the scale of the project proved too daunting, and they soon gave up.
Fittingly – as a grand scheme for a new country – the canal idea was revived after Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. A French engineer was asked to produce a feasibility study, but his estimated cost (40 million gold francs) was out of the question for the new country’s modest budget.
Fresh impetus arrived with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The following year, Greece’s prime minister Thrasyvoulos Zaimis authorised a construction plan. French financiers and engineers won the project but, nervous of the bankruptcy that befell the French company digging the Panama Canal, no bank would advance them a loan. Their company went bankrupt.
A new concession was granted to a Hungarian – István Türr – and his Société Internationale du Canal Maritime de Corinthe in 1881. He was commissioned not only to build the canal but also to operate it for 99 years. Interestingly, his working plans were almost identical to those used by Nero some 2000 years earlier.
Despite the company’s initial capital of 30 million francs, the money ran out after eight years and a bid to issue 60,000 bonds of 500 francs each fell over. The company went bankrupt, as did the bank attempting to raise funds for the project.
Construction resumed in 1890 when the project was transferred to a Greek company. The canal was finally completed and opened on 25 July 1893.
Problems arose almost immediately.
Because of the canal’s narrowness, tricky navigation and frequent closures to repair landslips, it failed to attract the projected volume of traffic. An annual throughout of some four million net tons was anticipated, but by 1906 it was only half a million net tons. This increased to 1.5 million net tons by 1913, but WW1 interrupted the growth.
The unstable sedimentary rock through which the canal is cut also proved problematic. In addition to the periodic landslips, the wake from passing ships undermined the canal’s steep walls, towering 63 metres above.
Curtailing further landslides required retaining walls along the water’s edge for half of the canal’s length. Between 1893 and 1940 the canal was closed for four years for maintenance. In 1923 alone, 41,000 cubic metres of material fell into the canal. It took two years to clear.
But the most serious damage suffered by the canal came in WWII. In 1944, retreating German forces triggered two explosions that dumped 645,000 cubic metres of earth and rock into the canal to render it useless to the Allies.
Just to make sure, they also dumped large objects into the canal – a road/railway bridge, 130 rail boxcars, six locomotives – all booby-trapped with mines. They also sank the Vesta – a 3400-ton steamship – in the canal.
It fell to the US Army Corps of engineers to clear the canal. US President Harry Truman, fearful of a civil war in Greece and the possibility of a communist takeover, asked Congress for $400 million in aid. In May 1947 he signed an Interim Aid Bill establishing the American Mission for Aid to Greece (AMAG).
The army engineers managed to reopen the canal for shallow-draft traffic by July 1948, and for all traffic in September that year.
The canal today
The canal is too shallow/narrow for large freighters and is used mainly for small vessels and cruising yachts. Still, the operators claim some 15,000 ships of at least 50 different nationalities use the canal every year.
They also believe widening/deepening the canal is a vital developmental project which will boost revenue and tourism. The proposed widening/expansion project has been included in the 2013-2016 Strategic and Operational Plan of the Corinth Canal (submitted to the Ministry of Finance in 2012).
With Greece’s current economic woes, upgrading the Corinth Canal is unlikely to be one of the government’s most pressing projects. But given the stop-start legacy and the tribulations it’s endured, the Corinth Canal will surely survive.