Corinth Canal

The Corinth Canal is a canal that connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. It cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland, thus effectively making the former peninsula an island. The builders dug the canal through the Isthmus at sea level; no locks are employed. It is 6.4 kilometres in length, only 21.4 metres wide at its base, and 8 metres deep, making it impassable for most modern ships. Therefore it now has little economic importance. Ships can only pass through the canal one convoy at a time on a one-way system. Larger ships have to be towed by tugs. The canal is nowadays mostly used by tourist ships; 11,000 ships per year travel through the waterway.

The rock walls, which rise 90 metres above sea level, are at a near-vertical 80° angle. The canal is crossed by a railway line, a road and a motorway at a height of about 45 metres. In 1988 submersible bridges were installed at sea level at each end of the canal, by the eastern harbour of Isthmia and the western harbour of Poseidonia.

The canal was mooted in classical times and an abortive effort was made to build it in the 1st century AD. Construction finally got under way in 1881 but was hampered by geological and financial problems that bankrupted the original builders. It was completed in 1893 but, due to the canal's narrowness, navigational problems and periodic closures to repair landslides from its steep walls, it failed to attract the level of traffic expected by its operators.

The idea for a shortcut to save boats sailing all round the Peloponnese was long considered by the Ancient Greeks. The first attempt to build a canal there was carried out by the tyrant Periander in the 7th century BC. He abandoned the project owing to technical difficulties, and instead constructed a simpler and less costly overland stone ramp, named Diolkos, as a portage road. Remnants of Diolkos still exist today next to the modern canal. When the Romans took control of Greece, a number of different solutions were tried. Julius Caesar foresaw the advantages of a link for his newly built Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis. By the reign of Tiberius, engineers tried to dig a canal, but were defeated by lack of modern equipment. Instead they built an Ancient Egyptian device: boats were rolled across the isthmus on logs, as the Egyptians had rolled blocks of granite to make their pyramids. This was in use by AD 32. In AD 67, the philhellene Roman emperor Nero ordered 6,000 slaves to dig a canal with spades. According to Pliny the Elder, the work advanced four stadia (about 5/8 kilometers). The following year Nero died, and his successor Galba abandoned the project as being too expensive.

In the modern era, the idea was first seriously proposed in 1830, soon after Greece's independence from the Ottoman Empire, and was brought to completion in 1893 after eleven years' work.

The Greek statesman Ioannis Kapodistrias asked a French engineer to assess the feasibility of the project but had to abandon it when its cost was assessed at some 40 million gold francs—far too expensive for the newly independent country. Fresh impetus was given by opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the following year, the government of Prime Minister Thrasyvoulos Zaimis passed a law authorizing the construction of a Corinth Canal. French entrepreneurs were put in charge but, following the bankruptcy of the French company that dug Panama Canal, French banks refused to lend money and the company went bankrupt too. A fresh concession was granted to the Société Internationale du Canal Maritime de Corinthe in 1881, which was commissioned to construct the canal and operate it for the next 99 years. This company went bankrupt too, and suspended construction. Construction resumed in 1890 when the project was transferred to a Greek company, and was finally completed on 25 July 1893 after eleven years' work.

Serious damage was caused to the canal during World War II, when it was the scene of fighting due to its strategic importance. On 26 April 1941, during the Battle of Greece between defending British troops and the invading forces of Nazi Germany, German parachutists and glider troops attempted to capture the main bridge over the canal. The bridge was defended by the British and had been wired for demolition. The Germans were able to surprise the defenders with a glider-borne assault in the early morning of 26 April and captured the bridge, but the British were able to set off the charges and destroy the structure.

Three years later, as German forces retreated from Greece, the canal was put out of action by German "scorched earth" operations. German forces used explosives to set off landslips to block the canal, destroyed the bridges and dumped locomotives, bridge wreckage and other infrastructure into the canal to hinder repair work. The United States Army Corps of Engineers began work to clear the canal in November 1947 and managed to reopen it for shallow-draft traffic by 7 July 1948, and for all traffic by that September.

View the embedded image gallery online at: