Greece’s Corinth Canal: The Complete Guide

Fascinating History and Engineering Marvel

Corinth Canal in Greece
Frauke Scholz/Getty Images 

Most travelers are familiar with many of the great man-made canals of the world like the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. These two great canals are lengthy and link major oceans. But many other smaller canals, like the Corinth Canal of Greece are also impressive engineering marvels, and every canal has its own fascinating history.

Canals serve many different purposes. River canals are often built to control flooding or provide irrigation sources, while most ocean canals are built as shortcuts, to lessen the time at sea for cargo or passenger ships.

The four-mile-long Corinth Canal is one of the world’s smallest canals designed to link two bodies of water and save sailing time for ships.

Location of the Corinth Canal

The Corinth Canal separates the mainland of Greece from the Peloponnese Peninsula. Specifically, the Canal links the Gulf of Corinth of the Ionian Sea with the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. A map of Greece shows not only its thousands of islands but also this peninsula that would be the country’s largest island if it weren’t connected to the mainland by this four-mile-wide strip of land. Technically, the Corinth Canal makes the Peloponnese an island, but since it's so narrow, most experts still refer to it as a peninsula.

Corinth Canal Facts and Stats

The Corinth Canal is named after the Greek city of Corinth, which is the nearest city to the isthmus. The Canal has steep limestone walls that soar about 300 feet from the water level to the top of the Canal but is only 70 feet wide at sea level.

 Ships must be narrower than 58 feet wide to transit the Canal. This small size was appropriate when the Canal was built in the late 19th century, but it is way too small for today’s cargo and passenger ships. In today’s world of mega-ships, the Corinth Canal is primarily used by small cruise ships and tour boats.

Like the Suez Canal, the Corinth Canal does not have locks; it is a flat-water canal.

Early History of the Corinth Canal

Although construction on the Corinth Canal was not completed until 1893, political leaders and sea captains dreamed about building a canal in this location for over 2,000 years. The first documented ruler to propose a canal was Periander in the 7th century B.C. He eventually abandoned the canal plan but did substitute a portage road, named the Diolkos or stone carriageway. This road had ramps on either end and boats were pulled from one side of the isthmus to the other. The remains of the Diolkos can still be seen today next to the Canal.

In the first century A.D., the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana predicted that anyone who planned to build a canal across the Corinthian isthmus would become ill. This prophecy didn’t deter three famous Roman emperors, but all died prematurely, making Apollonius look like a prophet. First, Julius Caesar planned to build a canal but was assassinated before it was even begun. Next, Emperor Caligula hired some Egyptian experts to assemble a plan for a canal. However, these experts incorrectly concluded that the Corinthian Gulf was a higher level than the Saronic Gulf.

They told the emperor that if he built the canal, water would rush through and flood the island of Aegina. While Caligula was considering their results, he was assassinated. The third Roman emperor to consider a Corinthian Canal was Nero. He made it past the planning stage and attempted to construct the canal. Nero even broke ground with a pickaxe and removed the first shovel of dirt. His workforce of 6,000 prisoners of war completed 2,300 feet of the Canal—about 10 percent. However, like his predecessors, Nero died before the Canal was completed, so the project was abandoned. Today’s Corinth Canal follows this same route, so no remnants are left. The Roman workers, however, did leave a relief of Hercules to memorialize their efforts, which can still be seen by visitors.

In the second century A.D., the Greek philosopher and Roman senator Herodes Atticus tried unsuccessfully to get a canal project re-started.

Hundreds of years passed, and in 1687, the Venetians considered a canal after conquering the Peloponnese but never began digging.

Nineteenth-Century Failures

Greece gained formal independence from the Ottoman empire in 1830 and the concept of building a canal across the isthmus near Corinth was revived. The Greek statesman Ioannis Kapodistrias hired a French engineer to assess the feasibility of the canal project. However, when the engineer estimated the cost to be 40 million gold francs, Greece had to abandon the proposal.

When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the Greek government reconsidered its own canal. The government of Prime Minister Thrasyvoulos Zaimis passed a law in 1870 authorizing the construction of a Corinth Canal and a French company was hired to oversee the project. It was not long before money became an issue. The French company building the Panama Canal went bankrupt and French banks became skittish about loaning money for major construction projects. Soon the French company working on the Corinth Canal went bankrupt too.

Corinth Canal Becomes a Reality

A decade passed, and in 1881 the Société Internationale du Canal Maritime de Corinthe was commissioned to build the canal and operate it for the next 99 years. King George I of Greece was present when construction was begun in April 1882.  The company's initial capital was 30 million francs. After eight years of work, it ran out of money. A bond proposal to issue 60,000 bonds at 500 francs each failed when less than half the bonds were sold. The company went bankrupt, as did its Hungarian head, István Türr. Even a bank that had agreed to raise additional funds for the project failed.

In 1890, construction resumed when the canal project was transferred to a Greek company. The canal was completed in July 1893, eleven years after construction had begun.

Financial and Structural Issues of the Corinth Canal

Although the canal saves ships about 400 miles, problems continued after the Corinth Canal was completed. The canal is very narrow, which makes navigation difficult. In addition, the steep walls channel winds through the canal, exacerbating navigation even more. Another factor hindering navigation is the timing of the tides in the two gulfs, which cause strong currents in the canal. These factors caused many ship operators to avoid the canal, so traffic was way below what was expected. For example, annual traffic of about 4 million tons had been estimated for 1906; however, only half a million tons of traffic used the canal that year, making revenues less than expected. In addition, by the time it was completed, the canal was too narrow for most ships, and its narrowness only allows for a one-way convoy of traffic. By the beginning of World War I, traffic had risen to 1.5 million tons, but the war caused a major decline.

The location of the canal in an active seismic zone also caused continuing problems. The steep limestone walls were already unstable and subject to landslides, and seismic activity and the wake of ships passing through the canal exacerbated this issue. The canal was closed frequently to either clear the landslides or build retaining walls. Of its first 57 years of usage, the Corinth Canal was closed for a total of four years.

The Corinth Canal was seriously damaged during World War II. During the Battle of Greece in 1941, British troops attempted to defend the bridge over the canal from German parachutists and glider troops. The British rigged the bridge for demolition, and when the Germans captured the bridge, the British promptly blew it up.

German forces began retreating from Greece in 1944, and they set off landslides to block the canal. In addition, they destroyed the bridges and dumped locomotives, bridge wreckage, and other infrastructure into the canal. This action hindered repair work, but the canal was reopened in 1948 after the U.S. Corps of Engineers cleared it.

Today, the Corinth Canal is used primarily by small cruise ships and tourist boats. About 11,000 ships per year travel through the waterway.

How to See the Corinth Canal

Travelers to Greece have three main options to see the Corinth Canal. First, cruise lines with small ships like Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises, and SeaDream Yacht Club transit the canal on eastern Mediterranean itineraries. Second, several private companies depart from Piraeus, the port of Athens, and offer a cruise through the canal. Finally, cruise ships with a day in Athens often offer a half-day shore excursion to the Corinth Canal for those who have visited Athens before. Guests board buses in Piraeus for the 75-minute drive to the Corinth Canal. Once there, a local tour boat takes them through the canal. These tours offer plenty of chances to see the canal from the top edge to the water level.