Greece - Corinth Canal and the Diolkos
The Corinth Canal and the ancient Diolkos ~ how the ancient Greeks made ships sail over land.
Corinth Canal & Diolkos
As part of a week-long trip around Greece with my son, during which time we went from Athens up to Kalabaka and south via Delphi to Epidauros (route shown below), we crossed over the Corinth Canal a couple of times. We were looping out and back on ourselves as we fitted in a quick trip to the West Court of Heraion on the Gulf of Corinth, which is on the Ionian Sea to the north of the Canal, before staying on the Saronic Gulf, which is the stretch of water to the south of the Canal, on the Aegean Sea,
Before the Canal was sliced across the isthmus of Corinth in the late 19th century, mainland Greece was joined to the Peloponnese. Those looking to sail from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to Athens were forced to sail around the Peloponnese, adding some 400 km and a couple of perilous headlands to their journey. For those looking to journey from north to south overland, passing through this hinge of land was the only way through. This made the ancient isthmus a problem; it was bottleneck of significant geo-political importance, giving rise to two strategically important ports as well as the influential City State of Corinth. You can see why the idea of a canal obsessed local rulers for centuries but more of that shortly,,,
On our way to the West Court of Heraion of Pechora from Corinth, we first approached the Canal at its northern most end, on the Posidonias road. This crossing is a small-scale road bridge that looks to be just a temporary fix; it is, of course, as it opens (submerges) several times a day for passing ships, but it still looks like something the army might knock up whilst the real bridge is being repaired after a storm. It’s matched by a similar bridge at the other end of the Canal, the Isthmia end, which you can see being sunk in the video (not mine).
The style of the bridge only heightens the appeal of the crossing, however, as does its location and the views.
To the north and north-west lie the Gerania hills and the Melagkavi Point (above); to the southeast flows the canal, initially wide, but narrowing to be straddled by its three bridges - foot, rail and road, with the sides rising steeply to support them (below).
There is a dirt area where you can park up just before accessing the bridge. The space overlooks a small cove where a lone fisherman was spinning and there’s a wide stone-lined path that stretches the short distance - perhaps 12 metres - to the water’s edge. Were it not for the brown sign, you’d think nothing of it. But the sign tells you this short track is, in fact, the Ancient Diokos (Δίολκος, from the Greek διά, dia "across" and ὁλκός, holkos "portage machine"): the earliest solution to the problem posed by the isthmus of Corinth; an extraordinary feat of design and engineering dating back thousands of years.
The Diolkos was a track paved with hard-wearing limestone that was used to haul boats overland across the Isthmus of Corinth. This 6 km shortcut saved travellers and traders, navies and navigators from the much longer and more dangerous circumnavigation of the Peloponnese.
Although dating the Diolkos precisely is tricky - little of it remains and what does may well have been replaced or improved by successive rulers - it was described as ‘ancient’ by Thucydides in the late 5th Century BCE and its invention is generally credited to Periander, the second Tyrant of Corinth who ruled during the late 7th Century BCE.
It might not look like much - but, oh my goodness this was a stirring sight to me! The thrill and excitement of actually seeing the Diolkos in person, of being able to walk along it, of touching the limestone, of feeling the scores and the grooves on the surface of its stones, all took me straight back to being a 10-year old again.
At 10, my folks took me to the magical island of Delos where I first encountered antiquity and was enthralled by Ancient Greece. It’s the place I became inspired to study Classical Greece, first at at school and later at university. I had the same dizzying giddiness at the Diolkos, the ‘Delos-effect’ - that surge of wonder and delight mixed with a fierce wish to proclaim and protect all at the same time.
If you are similarly entranced by all things Ancient Greece, you’ll enjoy Teacher Demetri’s YouTube video about the Diolkos, below. It is a little laboured, I know, but it uses digital animation effectively to illustrate how the Diolkos was used to move ships across the isthmus for more than 1500 years, between 600 BCE and 900 CE. However, if Demetri’s delivery is too pedestrian for you, skip to 9:20 then see how far you get!
The Corinth Canal has no locks because, like the Suez Canal, it is a flat stretch of water. Early planners mistakenly believed the Ionian Sea to be higher than the Aegean so they had warned that creating a canal would flood the southern regions of today’s Greece. This belief stopped Julius Caesar, Hadrian and Caligula from progressing with their various plans to build a canal at Corinth but Nero, being Nero, ignored the advice.
In 67 CE, Nero attempted the construction of a canal with 6,000 slaves, symbolically breaking ground first with a golden pickaxe but, with barely 10% of the canal constructed, Nero was murdered. (Augurs had warned of a curse on any who sought - hubristically - to re-route the seas at Corinth and, of course, all of the Roman emperors mentioned here died …errr…prematurely,
Many hundreds of years passed and a canal at the isthmus of Corinth remained an unfulfilled dream. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, however, the Greek government revisited canal plans for the Peloponnese. After a few false starts and bankruptcies, the Corinth Canal was finally opened in 1893.
My son and I were scouting out a place to stay that night, after our trip to the Heraion, and we crossed the road bridge just in time to see three small boats passing through the Canal so we hurriedly parked at the cafe nearby and ran back to watch from the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. The sight we saw was completely mesmerising!
Progress was slow - the currents and restricted draft make it a tricky business - but it looked magnificent; it’s a hugely impressive human endeavour.
The Canal walls were built using the same hard limestone that had been used for the Diolkos and they tower almost 100 metres above the water. The channel is just over 20 metres wide at sea level, however, which means that boats must be narrower than 18 metres wide in order to pass through the Corinth Canal. Whilst that may have worked for most vessels a hundred years ago, it’s far too small for today’s traders and travellers, so the Canal is now primarily a tourist novelty - for pleasure boats and cruisers, pedestrians and, uhmm, bungee jumpers. Nope, no I didn’t. It wasn’t open that day but even if it was, it’s a no from me.
The Corinth Canal was seriously damaged during World War II; its bridges were destroyed and trains, bridge wreckage, and other infrastructure was dumped into the water to block the channel. In 1948 the U.S. Corps of Engineers cleared it for reopening and the Canal has been in use ever since, with around 11,000 small boats and cruise ships passing through it each year.
As a fan of bridges and crossings in general, and of all things Ancient Greece in particular, the isthmus of Corinth was a fascinating place for me and I had looked forward to this part of our trip round Greece with huge anticipation. Sometimes that kind of expectation results in an anticlimax, as the place you imagined can’t match up and disappoints in some way. But that was most definitely not the case with the Corinth Canal - I absolutely loved it! I mean, just look at it! Isn’t it beautiful? I’d love to sail through it to experience the scale and drama of it. And the Diolkos is such a fascinating relic of ancient - and brilliant - problem-solving.
Although today the Canal’s bridges are used by far more road traffic than its waterway is for shipping, this busy thoroughfare remains a hot-spot for anyone who loves the confluence, not just of two bodies of water, but of political history and geography, I highly recommend you go.
The Tripographer’s notes
Unslumping level? 10/10
Would I go again? Oh, yes! Can’t wait to explore more.
Best time to go? Spring.
Best for? History, archaeology, culture, weather, bungee jumping.
Top tip? The Corinth Canal is normally closed to shipping on Tuesdays but you can find out more here.
More info about this place
Wikipedia: Ancient Diolkos
Fantastic photos of the Canal
Other posts about this place
Kalamaki Beach Hotel coming soon
Epidauros coming soon