I missed this event last but it certainly deserves a place among my growing collection of extreme sports on the Isthmus of Corinth. Modern dancer Katerina Soldatou aerial dances over the Corinth Canal. The Greek Reporter noted that “dancer and yoga instructor Katerina Soldatou…carried out a breathtaking performance of extreme aerial dance suspended above the Corinth Canal, as part of the “Greece Has Soul” programme. The event was held in order to raise awareness of the environment and the need to respect the history of each place.” As Katerina says in her video, “Experiencing a place of great history throughout is a most fulfilling way of understanding its true value…Sometimes the time is now.”
Some more Corinthian clickbait hit us last week in a series of news articles about a coin hoard from Lechaion. We have heard quite a bit in the past about the Lechaion Harbor Project (LHP), a Danish and Greek operation to document the underwater remains at Lechaion since 2013. Their press releases, which come at the end of each calendar year, find their way into media outlets around the world just in time for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We covered the work of the 2014 and 2015 seasons here, here, and here (2015), and press releases of their work in 2016 and 2017 can be found here and here.
The coin hoard, however, was found by the other Lechaion Project. Yes, that’s right, the other project. There are two separate, ongoing archaeological projects at Lechaion these days. While the Danish-Greek project has been investigating the underwater remains since 2013 and has received global coverage, the American-Greek Lechaion Harbor and Settlement Land Project (LHSLP) has been studying all the remains on land since 2014 and only begun excavation more recently. The results of their work are just beginning to circulate in archaeological conferences. It was this project that discovered the coin hoard.
But there should be some bigger and more interesting stories to come out of the work of the LHSP, especially if results are coordinated with those of the LHP. As the LiveScience article reported, based on recent talks at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and interviews with Paul Scotton and Michael Lerardi, the hoards were found in a putative work yard, which includes slag, iron, a basin, and animal bones. The Neos Kosmos piece reports the discovery of “two large Roman civic basilicas….Believed to have been government buildings, one dates to all the way back to the end of the 1st century, meaning they are likely from the early Roman colony founded by Julius Caesar.” The work of the LHSLP, which includes survey, excavation, remote sensing, and geophysics, could contribute eventually to outstanding debates about Lechaion and, indeed, about Corinth herself, including: the origins of the harbor and the history of the visible works; the growing importance of Lechaion during the century-long interim period following Rome’s devastation of Corinth in 146 BC; the patterns of land division documented by David Romano dating to the third quarter of the first century AD that point to planned neighborhoods; the role of the harbor and its refurbishment during the visit of the emperor Nero and the reign of Vespasian; the relationship between Corinth and Lechaion in the Roman era; the environment of the famous Lechaion basilica church, an early Christian church excavated long ago by Dimitrios Pallas; and the “abandonment” of the harbor in the Byzantine period (there is an ongoing debate, after all, among geomorphologists and geologists about whether Lechaion was destroyed by tsunami or not, but that’s another story). And I will also note that in a region characterized by archaeological fiefdoms–where individuals, institutions, and ambitions lay claim to particular buildings, sites, and classes of material–it would be a great (touching even) human story if these projects found a way to share their data and build a complementary study of the harbor over the period of a millennium.
So, we can celebrate the finds that make clickbait, but hold out for a better story or two. Not any time soon, mind you, as archaeological study takes years, even decades, and the real significance and results of programs of fieldwork are even then not always obvious.
May you never find yourself along the Corinth Canal during a rainstorm.
Torrential rains last Monday led to massive collapse of stones and debris about the midpoint of the canal, just beyond an old pedestrian bridge and near the old German bunkers. The canal is scheduled to be out of service for fifteen days while crews clear the blockage of enormous limestone blocks and heaps of sediments and mud. Collapse occurred to the east of the location shown on the map below.
Thanks to drone footage by Up Drones, you can appreciate the bird’s eye view of the damage and the effort already underway to clean it up.
This is certainly not the first time we have seen collapse over the last 120 years. The German destruction of the canal’s bridges at the end of WWII led to massive blockage within. And if you ever sailed through or walked along the Canal, you can see the irregular walls that were at one time straighter than they are now.
Add this to your list of things to do the next time you go to the Corinthia in September: Swim the Corinth Canal. According to this little blurb in ekathimerini, last week’s Swim the Canal event marked the first time the canal had been used for a swim race since its construction in 1893. No wonder: this year’s swim covered 6 kilometers. The organization webpage, Swim the Canal, notes that it was supposed to take at least 1 hour of swimming and as many as 4 hours. Not sure how many racer’s participated in this year’s event, but the pictures show quite a crowd.
I like that the organizers have appealed to the history of the canal and the Isthmus at their webpage.
So, swimming the canal takes its places alongside all the other athletic events and adventure sports at the Isthmus–you can read about some of those here. And you can be assured you’ll have another chance to swim the canal — it’s not likely that “the biggest swimming event in Greece” will be a one-time event.
Few remains survive today from the Roman Emperor Nero’s great endeavor to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. This is surprising and unfortunate since the initiative marked one of the most ambitious undertakings of Nero’s reign and arguably one of the emperor’s principal reasons for touring Greece in 66-68 AD. The work at the Isthmus probably lasted well over a year and involved a work force numbering as many as 10,000 slaves, political prisoners, soldiers, and conscripted laborers. The emperor and a labor force this substantial must have transformed the region in ways that it are hard for us to grasp today.
Before the late 19th century construction of the Corinth Canal (1881-1893), one could still see vestiges of the ancient remains. European travelers commonly reported ditches, trenches, pits, and mounds on both the eastern and western sides of the neck. A late 17th century map included with Richard Chandler’s overview of the territory (1776), for example, shows a line of ditches and mounds over the western third of the Isthmus. Colonel Martin Leake measured the width of the canal trench near the Corinthian Gulf at about 200 feet wide and 1,200 yards long , extending across the low coastal zone and terminating where the land begins to rise. Other travelers noticed towering mounds of earth and debris that were many meters high.
The only person to conduct a systematic survey was Béla Gerster, the architect from Hungary who was largely responsible for planning and executing the modern Corinth Canal. Gerster carefully investigated the ancient remains as part of his planning for constructing the modern canal and documented trenches on both sides of the Isthmus and pits across the ridge. He published his findings initially in a BCH article, which he later revised and expanded in his 1896 book on the modern Corinth canal.
It is hard to appreciate today how much the 19th century canal project transformed the topography of the Isthmus. Through the use of dynamite and locomotives, the work crews extracted 11 million cubic meters of earth and stone over little more than a decade and spread it across the region. Much of the coastal zone on both gulfs today is elevated above sea level through dumping. There are even little neighborhoods close to Isthmia that are built on artificial ridges created from canal debris; in some cases, modern work crews simply used the ancient debris mounds for dumping their own materials. Transformations continued in the 20th century: the strategic importance of the Isthmus to the German occupation of Greece, especially, generated bunkers, camps, and more movements of earth. All of this explains why very little remains today from the ancient canal. A couple of students and I walked across the Isthmus in 2014 to see if we could locate any of the features in Gerster’s 1884 map and were reminded just how extensively humans had remade the territory in the last 130 years.
There are a few exceptions, which prove interesting. Near the start of the so-called diolkos of Corinth on the Corinthian Gulf, one can see in the water at the canal’s edge a broad sloping “platform” created by flat slabs. When Harold Fowler discussed this area in his topographic survey of the Corinthia (1932, p. 51), he recorded its dimension as about 40 meters long. Scholars have usually associated the zone with the diolkos (Sector A), but Koutsoumba and Nakas have made a compelling case that this actually should date to Nero’s canal project (among other things, they point out that it follows the same orientation as the modern canal and has no clear architectural relationship to the portage road 20 meters to the south).
On the Peloponnesian side of the canal, as one walks eastward along the canal from the Corinthian Gulf, some of the visible limestone and standstone walls belong to the original (rather than 19th century) canal works of Nero. As Wiseman originally noted, and I have seen myself, one can actually see marks of ancient chiselling. It was on the Corinthian Gulf side that the Roman canal crews made the greatest progress–excavating a canal hundreds of meters through both alluvial sediments and, in higher elevations, sandstone and limestone overburden.
The most interesting remains of Nero’s project, however, can be found opposite a stone foundation for an old (railroad?) bridge. The photo below, taken from the Peloponnesian side of the canal, shows one of those foundations on the Greek mainland side of the canal. There is a parallel foundation on the Peloponnesian side.
Here is some perspective of that area from the old gravel road on the Peloponnesian side. In the picture below, I have circled in red the stone foundation for the bridge.
Below this bridge foundation is the ancient canal wall and the famous Nero relief [Visitors should take care: the canal wall cliffs in this area are not insignificant], which has eroded even further since James Wiseman’s discussion of it 40 years ago (see figures below). The relief shows a man standing beneath a pediment with left arm resting on a thick object and right arm folded in. The photo can be interpreted (as Wiseman noted in 1978) either as an image of the Emperor Nero, or as a relief of Heracles resting from his labors. The most convincing interpretation in my view (and the argument I advance in The Isthmus ofCorinth)is that it represents Nero as Heracles, who is in fact at the end of his labors.
While not much remains to this day, the record of remains by Gerster and earlier travelers allows one to reconstruct how Nero’s engineers approached the seemingly impossible task of transforming the maritime properties of the ancient landscape.
A website called tripinview claims to be the world’s first visual travel website, whcih makes available 800,000 photos of 300 hours of video of Mediterranean coastline. You can map and search, build a trip, or take the website’s highlight tours from the air. The site offers extensive coverage of Mediterranean coastal territory including fantastic footage of the Corinthia. Searching via the keyword “Corinthia” turns up 40 different coastal locations that include New Corinth, Kiato, Lechaion, Sikyon, Korphos, Kenchreai, and Loutra Elenis.
If you click on a place, you have the option of scrolling through still shots of the coastline taken from a helicopter perspective, or watching 5-10 minute video sequences of the coast. You can also access information and weather information about each of these places.
This is a fantastic tool for seeing Greek coastlines from a whole new perspective. For example, on this six minute flight from Loutra Elenis to the Corinth Canal on the Saronic Gulf, you’ll have a completely unique visual perspective of the winding coastline, Mt. Oneion, topography, and a series of archaeological sites. There are excellent views of the submerged harbor of Kenchreai and the Koutsongila Ridge with its Roman-Late Roman cemetery.
A visual from the cape known as Akra Sophia facing toward Kenchreai and Mt. Oneion. Akra Sophia was the location of Roman to Early Byzantine villa sites published by Timothy Gregory.
And here’s the helicopter perspective from Akra Sophia facing toward the canal. This marks the beginning of the Isthmus, at least as Greek writers of the classical and Hellenistic age imagined the landscape.
On this ten minute flight from the Corinth Canal to Kiato, you’ll see New Corinth and a series of little Corinthian settlements on the Corinthian Gulf. Great images of the external harbor and internal basins at Lechaion, as well as the early Christian basilica there.
Unfortunately no inland footage, so you won’t get a good view of Ancient Corinth except from a distance. Still, this is a great resource. I could imagine showing both of the videos noted above in history or archaeology classes that introduce Corinth’s situation near a connecting Isthmus.
Google Earth provides excellent satellite imagery and aerial photographs of the Corinthia, but the service seems not to have done so well in reconciling the built features of the landscape with the topography in the area of the Corinth Canal. My six-year old and I were flying around the Isthmus and discovered the distortion in imagery that makes the national highway and railway look like a themepark roller coaster. Have no fear: the roads over the canal are perfectly flat, or at least they were the last I checked.
This new book by Platon Alexiades is the first of its kind to narrate the important role of the Corinth Canal in Allied and Axis operations during World War II. Target Corinth Canal: 1940-1944 (Pen and Sword, 2015) offers a narrative of the canal’s central place in the logistics of supply and control between 1940 and 1944. I tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy via interlibrary loan, so have had to rely on the publisher page, Google and WorldCat to reconstruct the contents. Here is the book description from the publisher page:
“During the Second World War the Corinth Canal assumed an importance disproportionate to its size. It was the focus of numerous special Allied operations to prevent oil from the Black Sea reaching Italy, to delay the invasion of Crete and severing the vital German supply lines to Rommel’s Army in North Africa. German airborne forces occupied the Canal to cut off the ANZAC retreat and Hitler needed the Canal kept open to maintain control of the Aegean Sea. Were this lost, he feared Turkey entering the War on the Allied side. Target Corinth Canal unearths a treasure trove of facts on the little known operations by SOE and other special force units. Heroes such as Mike Cumberlege emerge from the pages of this splendid work of military history.”
The table of contents suggests a play-by-play political and military narrative:
Chapter 1: Greece and the Corinth Canal
Chapter 2: The navy and the Mediterranean 1940
Chapter 3: Soe in Greece
Chapter 4: The Corinth Canal and the dodecanese islands;
Chapter 5: The British intervention in Greece;
Chapter 6: First attempt;
Chapter 7: The Canal is Seized;
Chapter 8: Retreat and Recriminations;
Chapter 9: The Royal Air Force Attempts;
Chapter 10: Clandestine Work for Mi9;
Chapter 11: The Greek Resistance;
Chapter 12: The Corinth Canal and the Battle of el Alamein;
Chapter 13: new plans: Thurgoland and Locksmith
Chapter 14: operation LOCKSMITH
Chapter 15: Capture;
Chapter 16: double-Cross Attempt;
Chapter 17: Apollo and the don Stott episode;
Chapter 18: last Attempt: The Germans;
Chapter 19: Sachsenhausen;
Chapter 20: Fate and Justice;
Chapter 21: Conclusion; epilogue;
Appendix A: Abbreviations, pseudonyms and Codenames;
Appendix B: personalities;
Appendix C: Traffic in Corinth Canal from 16 May to 22 June 1941;
Appendix d: Traffic in Corinth Canal from June 1942 to 7 August 1942;
Appendix e: Use of the Corinth Canal by U-boats;
Appendix F: The Cairo questionnaire concerning the Corinth Canal
Appendix G: Schemes proposed by Major Tsigantes
Appendix h: limpets and naval Sabotage in the Second World War;
Appendix i: Ships sunk or damaged by Soe and Greek saboteurs;
Appendix J: The Kiel Canal
I will be interested to see how well the author has discussed the canal within a regional framework. Diana Wright, for example, published two posts presenting Australian and New Zealand accounts from April 1941 (here and here), which highlighting the Isthmus as a bridge for the Anzac retreat from Athens through the Peloponnese, and, then, later, a German prisoner of war camp. In the Eastern Korinthia Survey, we documented quite a few German gun emplacements and bunkers across the ridges and capes of the Corinthian Isthmus that give a sense of the German investments. The images below were taken at Akra Sophia not far from the canal.
The Library of Congress continues to build its collections of prints and photographs with a few Corinthian ones among them. I love this old stereo card print from 1906 showing the Corinth canal, opened little more than a decade earlier on July 25, 1893.
Metadata from the Library of Congress:
Title: An old dream realized at last, ship-canal through isthmus, E.S.E. Corinth, Greece
Summary: Man standing on bridge above canal in foregrd.
Created / Published: c1906.
– Stereo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood.
– No. (36) 9305.- This record contains unverified, old data from caption card.