Periander, tyrant from Corinth in the 7th century BC used to dream about it, that passage which would have allowed the navigation from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea without having to circumnavigate the whole Peloponnese.

Positioning of the Corinth Canal

Above: picture by di EcoChap shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

It remained as a dream for Periander as the pricey and extremely complex project was rejected by the most listened to and feared Greek Oracle, the one of Delphi, Pythia. It seems that Apollo, through the Oracle itself, was extremely clear on that response, something extremely rare with the oracles.

“neither building nor digging the isthmus. Zeus has designed the islands as he thought it was supposed to be”

Above: picture by Fingalo shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

So much clarity probably due to the firm opposition of those ministers of the Oracle, afraid of losing those offers that the many sailors and merchants were used to leaving to the temple before starting their navigation around the Peloponnese. On the other hand not even the locals were very excited about the idea, scared of losing that central trading position that the city used to enjoy at the time.

Above: picture shared via Wikipedia– licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Periander accepted the verdict and opted for another solution: he started the operations leading to a paved road, named Díolkos, used not only for goods transport but also for ships towing  when the circumnavigation of the whole region would have been a long and risky venture.

Remains of the Díolkos by Periander


Above: picture by Dan Diffendale shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The Díolkos, utilised up until the 1st century AD, was mentioned by the historian Thucydides in the 3rd century BC as a project realised in ancient times.

Above: picture by Dan Diffendale shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The idea of the canal came back to mind to a Macedonian King, Demetrius I of Macedon (337-283 a.C.), which abandoned the idea as well as soon as his experts foresaw possible inondations due to the encounter of the two seas.

Above: public domain picture

The Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, mystic- wizard who lived in the 1st century AD, amongst his many prophecies talked about the isthmus too: whoever had tried to dig a canal would have died of a violent death.

Above: picture by Carlos Corzo shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Actually the three Roman emperors who took that idea into account eventually met a bad end. As for Julius Caesar that was a future prophecy since the Roman Dux was already dead by the time the philosopher was born. It seems though, according to  Suetonius, that Julius Caesar had pondered over the idea of creating the canal, but he was killed before having the chance to realise it.

Above: picture by Nicholas Hartmann shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Later it was the turn of Caligula, killed as well, whom in 40 AD asked for a consultation to Egyptian technicians. The men shot down the idea themselves because in their opinion the different level between the two seas would have provoked a inondation to the Aegina Island.

Above: public domain picture

However the Romans were known to be stubborn, so Nero decided that such a canal had to be developed at all costs. In 67 AD the emperor hurled the first pick blow while singing hymns to the gods. The remaining work would have been carried out by the 6,000 slaves, Jewish prisoners of war, that started to dig trenches from both sides of the isthmus while in the meantime they would dig wells in the central block.

Schema of the Roman project for the Corinth Canal

Above: public domain picture

The operation was proceeding slowly and the idea was abandoned one year later when the emperor committed suicide. It would have probably made him particularly proud knowing that when the project was finally terminated, the new engineers followed his same blueprint started almost 2,000 years before. The digging and wells that the Roman slaves had previously made were still visible up until the beginning of the modern works.

The construction work in the Corinth Canal – 1890 circa


Above: public domain picture

If Nero didn’t die, maybe the Romans would have finished the endeavour, or maybe not. What is sure is that Venetian people attempted the feat in 1687, but they renounced almost immediately: the project appeared as very challenging for them as well.

Corinth Canal  – 1890 circa


Above: public domain picture

Another (almost) 2,000 years had to pass by before someone embarked into the journey once again. In 1830 Ioannis Kapodistrias, first Head of State of independent Greece (independent since 1827), asked to a French engineer to study a project to finally realise the canal. The work resulted in being way too pricey for the rising Republic though.

The Canal is open – 1895 circa


Above: public domain picture

In 1869 the Greek government though, maybe jealous of the opening of the Suez canal, granted the construction of the canal to a French company (for shortage of funds) in exchange for their commercial use for 99 years.

Below: a cruise ship travel across the canal. Picture by Andrew and Annemarie shared via Flickr – licence Creative Commons 2.0

That first attempt failed for both technical and economical problems as well as the second did too, still with a French company. It was the 1882 and the canal was still a dream. Eventually though, in 1890, a Greek business took the command and finished the work in 1893.

Below: inauguration of the Corinth canal. Konstantinos Volanakis, 1893

Above: public domain picture

The Corinth Canal had finally connected the two seas, but its restricted minimum length of 24.6 m (80 ft) limitates enormously its use, mainly employed by recreational ships.

Above: picture by Ernmuhl shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The canal had no easy life though (maybe for the prophecy of Apollonius?) as its physical features with those overhanging walls were subject to earth up with the material crumbling from above.

In the incredible long story of its construction it is important to mention its destruction too, happened at the hands of the Germans who, while retreating from Greece in 1944, blew up the walls of the canal and filled it up with mechanical means (here you can find an old video commented in Greek).

German soldier at the feet of the Corinth Canal


Above: image by Bundesarchiv shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The reconstruction of the canal and its bridges was guided between the years 1946 and 1948, by the US Army.

America Soldier clean up the Corinth Canal – 1948


Above: public domain picture

Nowadays, while the Greek infrastructures such as bridges, airports and motorways are  in the care of German companies and the Piraeus Harbour by the Chinese ones, the Corinth Canal is still on the hands of Greece. How long for still?

Below: a spectacular video showing the passage of a Cruise ship inside the canal

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