SUPing the Corinth Canal

This clip on the “newest sport of SUP” was the most interesting new canal water sport video to appear in my Google Alerts this week.  (I get more than one might expect).  It must have been Strabo who said “The width of the Isthmus at the “Diolkos,” where the people paddle from one sea to the other, is forty stadia, as I have already said.”  Or, wait, maybe that was a reference to the movement of ships overland.  In any case, this looks like hard work, but not, of course, as hard as dragging a ship…

As usual, the history of the canal has been tacked onto the end of the video and the story.  Some late 19th century photos of the canal also come at the end of the video.  The story on the event available here.  And if you don’t know SUPing, here’s the wikipedia article.

The Diolkos Petition

It’s not hard to construct narratives of decline for the paved trans-Isthmus diolkos road.  One only has to compare the monument unearthed by N. Verdelis 50 years ago with modern photos of a road sliding into the canal.  Indeed, Sophia Loverdou has used the tools of social media to launch a “Save the Diolkos” campaign.  She has documented the deterioration of the road by posting dozens of “before” and “after” images of the road since its excavation (see this Facebook page), and marked the ongoing consequences of continuous canal traffic through this Youtube channel

The differences in the before and after photos really are impressive. The following images come from the Facebook page.  The platform at Sector A, for example, has deteriorated significantly even in the last twenty years. 

Platform (sector A)

About a third of the road excavated (Sectors B-E) on the Peloponnesian side of the canal has slipped into the canal.  I imagine, however, that Sector B is preserved under the sand in the image on the right.

Another glimpse of the part of the road (Sectors C-D) that has fared the worst:

sectors C-D to E

And even the part of the road frequently visited by tourists (Sector G) has largely slipped into the canal. 

sector G

As a scholar of Late Antiquity, I’m naturally wary of straightforward narratives of decline.  Indeed, I was struck by Ferrell Jenkins’ post on the diolkos in early July, which includes his scanned slides from the early 1970s that show the upkeep of the road then was actually a bit worse than it is today (even if its overall preservation was better).  The road is covered not only in vegetation (fairly normal of most Greek sites in late spring / early summer) but also in earth.  There has also been some effort in recent years to keep things from getting worse.  The following images capture some basic techniques (mortar and cement) to prevent the soil under Sector G from eroding further into the canal.




These efforts have been partial, however, and are not likely to match the rate of deterioration.  Indeed, it’s the deterioration of the road, caused by episodes of dredging and constant ship traffic, that is the striking and dramatic story here.  While Greece’s crisis of economy may make a fix unlikely anytime soon there’s still good reason to join the campaign to save the road.  This petition letter, which is addressed to the prime minister of Greece, simply runs:

“We declare ourselves against the mentalities and practices that lead to the destruction of the world’s heritage and we ask the Greek Prime Minister to exercise his authority so that, without any further delays and hypocrisy, the Diolkos is finally saved and restored.”

Nearly 7,800 people have signed it so far.  Join the cause by signing here.  I’ve created a permanent place for the petition and these links here.

Cruising the Canal, Damaging the Diolkos

One of the consequences of spending a summer morning talking with Sophia Loverdou was seeing the diolkos in a whole new light.  I had contacted Sophia following the recommendation of a reviewer (on a forthcoming diolkos article) that a woman had launched a crusade to save the diolkos of Corinth.  I had seen Sophia’s name before but had not read much about her campaign.  I wanted to hear her story and so I arranged a meeting at Poseidonia on the Corinthian Gulf.  As we walked along and visited different parts of the road, I kept looking for clues that might unlock the archaeology and history of the road.  Sophia, on the other hand, kept talking about the modern organizations that were responsible for the road’s utter destruction: the Corinth Canal Company and the Greek Ministry of Culture, among others. 

We stopped above the poorly preserved Sectors D and E and talked about how the road had come to look like this. 

 Sectors C and D

A few minutes later, one of those bulk freighters, the “EKO 3” was towed into the entrance of the canal.  I was surprised to see the dramatic change in the amount of water over the remains of the road. The first picture below shows the road as the EKO entered the canal.


The second image shows the displaced water as the EKO passed by.  Note the dark sediments and sand carried back into the canal from the banks.


In the half hour that we stood there talking, we watched three smaller vessels pass through and have a comparable effect on the road.  Meanwhile, Sophia kept talking about the webs of complicity and criminality responsible for damaging the road.  I was at least understanding the problem now.

The day ended and I went back to Ancient Corinth and downloaded the images.  I returned the following day to reexamine some blocks and take additional photographs.  As ships moved in and out of the western entrance to the canal, I decided to take a few videos documenting the damage.  Many of the vessels were like simple passenger carriers that had some minor effect on the road.

I was surprised, though, by the Catamaran Glass Bottom Boat, a vessel based in the Saronic that takes parties of tourists through the canal many times each day.  I myself had journeyed through the canal on this kind of boat only two years ago.  I was surprised that such a small vessel produced bow waves that easily reached and eroded the diolkos on the banks of the canal.

But the monster ship that day was the mega cruise ship “The Coral” discussed in yesterday’s post.  After I filmed it passing by the Nero relief, I jumped in my car and drove to the bridge about a kilometer to the west.  And here, the water that rushed back caught me by surprise.

According to the website of the Corinth Canal Company (A.E.D.I.K.), some 11,000 marine vessels of all kinds pass through the Corinth Canal every year: tiny fishing boats, large cargo vessels, cruise ships with waving passengers, private yachts bearing sleepy vacationers, and ugly cranes and barges.  I’m still not sure who or which organization(s) are to blame for the destruction of this unique monument of the ancient Mediterranean, but it’s clear that constant canal traffic has had a major force in eroding the road.  I can understand how an ancient limestone road cannot compete with a monumental canal, and I also get how no one wants to claim responsibility or blame for the deterioration of this monument, but should there not be some greater systematic effort to preserve the great trans-Isthmus road that has figured so prominently in discussions of the ancient Corinthia? 



A Cruise Ship in the Corinth Canal

In early June I had the chance to visit the Corinth Canal with Sophia Loverdou, the woman who has launched a campaign to save the ancient diolkos (more on that campaign later in the week).  As I wrote in this post in late June, she and I toured the part of the diolkos inside Military Engineers Camp.  We also drove along the dirt road on the Peloponnesian side of the canal (visible just above the cliff face in the image below) and viewed the canal from various perspectives. 


She showed me the old bridge posts marking the location of the so-called “Nero Relief,” an ancient carving presumably left behind by the builders of the ancient canal before they abandoned their enterprise in the late 60s AD.  Nikolaos Verdelis thought this relief had been left by the Emperor Nero, and James Wiseman suggested that the severely eroding man could represent Heracles holding a club.  It was great to know the location of the relief because I had only ever seen and photographed it from the canal itself on one of those “tour-the-canal” boat rides.  After Sophia left for Athens, I returned to the site, climbed down the embankment, and took some pictures. 


A comparison of these to Wiseman’s Land of the Ancient Corinthians, fig. 46, suggests that the stone has deteriorated significantly since he shot his photo in the 1960s.  And of course, the sprayed black tagging  shown on the rock face below is new. 


While I was driving along the dirt road, stopping and taking photographs, I caught site of one of those mega cruise ships, the kind you see in the postcards filling up the canal completely and being tugged between seas by a little tug boat called the Titon.  Postcards often show a doctored photo of blue water and skies.  What I saw was a cruise ship called the “Coral” having the roughest time in the journey, billowing out ugly dark smoke as it trudged along.  I drove my rental car from the center of the Isthmus to the Nero relief and waited. 


And waited…It took 45 minutes for the little Triton tug boat to reach the relief.  I considered just going home, but my curiosity got the best of me.


I shot several videos.  The one below captures the moment of passing. 

The whole thing drew my own attention to connections between the past and present.  Here I was witnessing the modern realization of Nero’s crazy idea to canalize the Isthmus to bring ships through it.  But in this case, the purpose of the journey of the mega-ton Coral was not so much to pass through but to see one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century.  Imagine if Nero had accomplished the endeavor of making a canal of the Isthmus in the days before dynamite and heavy equipment: it would certainly have been one of the greatest tourist sites of the Roman Mediterranean. 

More Extreme Sports at the Isthmus

There is something fitting about staging extreme sports at the Isthmus today.  Perhaps it has something to do with ancient attempts to canalize the Isthmus, or drag ships over it, or build big fortification walls across it—all heroic and incredible feats.  Or perhaps it has something to do with the associations with the Pan-Hellenic festival at Isthmia and the landscape’s association with contest.  Or maybe the Corinth Canal is simply a good tourist attraction, gathering point, and natural place for exhibitions and crazy stunts.  Whatever the case, this popular experience of the Corinthia stands alongside all those St. Paul pilgrimage tours, and historical tours of sites of the ancient Corinthia.

In a previous post, I  noted the madness of bungee jumping from the canal bridge.  I had one friend who, when she saw that post appear on Facebook, claimed to have done the jump herself, and soon ended up pregnant with twins (I told you it was dangerous).

The Australian Robbie Maddison’s motorcycle leap through the air tops the bungee.  I discovered these videos about a year ago but they continue to remain popular on the web.  This is an image you don’t see every day (reposted from

Two short videos of the jump.  Some nice footage of the canal.  Kids, don’t try this at home.  (And stay away from the Red Bull, which inevitably leads to such behaviors)

A Book about the Diolkos

I first discovered Apostolos Papafotiou’s Ο δίολκος στον ισθμό της Κορίνθου (=”The Diolkos on the Isthmus of Corinth”), Corinth 2007 (ISBN 960-87108-9-8), while browsing Corinthian history books at bookstore in New Corinth.  Because I don’t like to pay over $100 for a book, I delayed until the following summer to convince myself that it was worth the price.  The truth of the matter is that this book is hard to find outside Greece—in the US, at least, only the university libraries at Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame own a copy—and so there is  little hope of acquiring a copy via Interlibrary Loan.  The high cost of the book points to its principal value: at 325 pages, the book provides a compendium of 176 color illustrations, plans, photographs, and maps related to the Isthmus of Corinth, the site of Isthmia, and the diolkos.  There are some original observations about the Isthmus and the diolkos along the way, but the book’s main value in my view lies in its compilation of visual and textual material relevant to Corinthian territory: 17th-20th century maps, modern plans of archaeological sites, photographs of the canal and Isthmus, centuriation plans, reconstructed buildings, literary testimony to ship carting in antiquity, etc…  I’ve already used some of the images for teaching purposes, and have consulted it for its thorough (but not exhaustive) citation of texts. 


Papafotiou_Front Cover Papafotiou_Back Cover

The book is explicitly (from the title) about the diolkos, but it is really the Isthmus. A summary outline of the book:

1.The Isthmus, including discussion and full quotations of relevant texts, coins, Isthmia, geology

2. The Diolkos and the Canal, including discussion and full quotations and relevant ancient texts to the canal cuts

3. The Isthmian Games, including full quotations of ancient texts relevant to the Isthmian games and victors, as well as references to the Isthmus

4. The Diolkos and the Fortification Wall

5. The Diolkos and the Temple of Poseidon

6. The Diolkos as a Road, including discussions of the roads of the Peloponnese, the schematics of the canal, and the harbors of the Corinthia

7. The Diolkos and the Roman destruction of Corinth and the interim period

8. The Roads of the Isthmus

9. Ancient Texts about the Diolkos and the transfer of boats, arranged chronologically

10. Sectors of the Diolkos

11. Letters and characters on the Diolkos Road

12. Transportation of Cargoes: over the Isthmus and in the ancient world generally

13. Ancient Texts about canalizing isthmuses

14. Diolkoi and ship carting elsewhere

15. Mechanics of carting ships

16. The meaning and mechanisms of “holkoi”

17. Cranes and Lifting Devices

18. Boats in Antiquity

19. Transfer of Cargoes and Ships over the Diolkos

20. Venetian Period and the Isthmus

21. Geomorphological Discussions

22. Character of the Path of the Diolkos Across the Isthmus

23. Technical discussion of the canal in respect to gradient and topography

24. Topography of the Isthmus

25. Discussion of the Potential Paths of the Diolkos

26. Conclusions Brief biographical summaries of the ancient authors mentioned in the text Bibliography

Bungee into the Abyss

If it looks unsafe, it probably is.  That’s what I have often thought while watching extreme sport types jump 80 meters head first into the Corinth Canal.  For 60 Euro you can pay Zulu Bungy to jump from the old national road bridge and hang suspended above the canal for a couple of minutes.  It is interesting that bungee jumping at the Isthmus has become a main attraction in its own right and forms one of the main memories of the Corinthia that Greeks and foreigners take away.  Also interesting that Zulu Bungy has made something of the history of the Isthmus in their advertisement:


But the site is indeed a popular one.  The Isthmus now numbers among the premier destinations in the world for this kind of extreme sport (see 20 amazing places to bungee jump) and I’m finding YouTube videos of canal jumps increasingly filling my Google alerts.  Check out, for example, this one here and here.   This one proves what an old friend had once told me (and which I did not believe)—that you can ask the operators for enough cord to hit the water.  Sure enough, as Zulu’s website notes, “WATERTOUCH AVAILABLE THAT WILL ALLOW YOUR HEAD TO JUST KISS THE WATER.”  Awesome. 

Here are pictures my wife shot in 2007 of a jump in action:




My favorite Isthmus bungee video is the one posted on which is set to the cool background track ‘Ciao Bella.’  As one person commented on that video, “i did it , and is one unforgetable experience.”  Another said “supercool! Corinth Canal is THE place for bungyjumping!” 

This memorable experience of the Corinthia, by the way, is not encouraged for pregnant women, individuals with heart conditions or bone problems, and very large people, among others.  If it looks unsafe…

Whirlwind on the Isthmus

My four days in the Corinthia passed much too quickly for my liking.

Day 1: Arrive at the Isthmus and introduce students to the delicious fastfood Goody’s chain; view the canal from the old national highway bridge; race to the top of Acrocorinth before the site closed (now 3 PM, no longer 7); visit Kenchreai and muse for 10 minutes about Paul’s haircut; check in hotel(s); dinner at the Gemelos Taverna where I ran into Dr. Scott Nash and group.


Anyone who has been to Greece has a photo like this.


But probably not like this.  The monument erected in 2009  commemorates the Hungarians István Türr (1825-1908) and Béla Gerster (1850 1923) “who planned, organised and directed the construction of the Corinth Canal, a masterpiece of 19th century engineering.”


What I wouldn’t do to get this picture on a clear day.

Crossing the Isthmus

Messiah College students crossing the Isthmus (view from the peak of Acrocorinth)

Western Plain

Ancient Corinth (to right) and part of the western coastal plain on May 30, 2011.

Day 2: Visit Mycenae with class, where Dr. Abaz Kreymadhi gave us a physics lesson on the behavior of sound waves (at least that’s what he told us when we were talking to the wall) and I remembered how much I had forgotten about the world of Agamenon); visit Nafplio for an excuse to have the best gelato in the world (I had not forgotten how good that gelato was); visit archaeological museum while students beached and climbed the Palamidi; dinner at the Gemelos Taverna where I ran into Dallas Deforest and Chris Cloke and Mark Hammond

IMG_2359 IMG_2351

Day 3: Students day to explore Corinth gave me time to tour the diolkos and canal with Sophia Loverdou.  More on this over the next few days.

Day 4: Students’ day to explore the Corinthia and Argolid.  Return to the diolkos for photo shoot; visit Isthmia where I ran into Tim Gregory, Tom Tartaron, Amy Dill.

Day 5: Off to Athens.  Until the next time.