The Building of Canals in the Ancient World

views updated

The Building of Canals in the Ancient World


By far the most impressive and well-known canals of the modern world are those in Panama and the Suez. The former, completed in 1903, connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, fulfilling a dream of several centuries. But the Suez Canal, which for the first time opened up the route between the Mediterranean and Red seas in 1869, represented the culmination of literally thousands of years' effort. Among the earliest canals were ones whereby builders in Egypt attempted to connect the Nile and the Red Sea; but these were far from the only major canal-building projects of the ancient and early medieval world. Indeed, the period before a.d. 700 saw the building of the world's longest canal in China, a waterway aptly known as the Grand Canal.


Canals are manmade waterways built for irrigation, drainage, water supply, or—and this is most often the case in modern times—transportation. As early as 5000 b.c., more than two millennia before the unification of Egypt and the beginnings of what is typically recognized as Egyptian civilization, the first canals appeared in Egypt. Spurred by the drying of lands along the Nile, the early Egyptians began constructing dikes and irrigation canals, developments that greatly enhanced the livability of the area and helped lead to the establishment of cities.

Further east, in the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates that spawned the Mesopotamian civilizations, villagers began building primitive irrigation canals and ditches. This occurred at about the same time as the Egyptian projects, and likewise signaled a major step in the development of a civilization, as the peoples of Sumer banded together for the purpose of building these channels.

Historians commonly date the beginnings of true civilization—complete with agriculture, a settled way of life, an ordered system of government, writing, and cities—to about 3500 b.c. in Sumer, and slightly later in Egypt. The first Egyptian monarch of which anything is known was Menes, who united the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3100 b.c., and it is said that he too undertook canal-building projects. Certainly in societies built around rivers, as those of Egypt and Sumer were, the development of irrigation for surrounding lands was a priority. Thus in Sumer in about 3000 b.c. the people of the lower Euphrates valley were using basic tools such as the lever for the construction of canals.

For the Egyptians, one of the facts of life along the Nile was the existence of cataracts, or rapids, that interrupt the smooth flow of the river. Just above the site of modern-day Khartoum, Sudan, is the Sixth Cataract, and as the Nile snakes gradually northward, it passes through several more of these rapids, each numbered in descending order. The First Cataract lies near the modern city of Aswan, and it was above this point that Egyptian civilization developed. Yet by the Sixth Dynasty (2350-2150 b.c.), the Egyptians had begun building transport canals to bypass the First Cataract. Once again there was a Mesopotamian parallel, when in about 2200 b.c. the building of the Shatt-el-hai Canal linked the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.


Egypt's pharaoh Senusret II (1842-1836 b.c.) had floodgates built along part of the Nile Valley in order to reclaim valuable farmland, and his son Senusret III (1836-1817 b.c.) ordered the First Cataract cleared. This removed one of Egypt's natural barriers, and for that reason he had fortresses built to protect the country from invasion by Nubians or Kushites to the south.

Yet Egypt and Mesopotamia were not the only lands in which canal-building took place during the period from 2000 to 600 b.c. Far away in Peru were the city-states of Layzón and Agua Tapada, influential in the development of the Chavín culture (1000-400 b.c.). Greatest among the legacies of the Layzón and Agua Tapada was the Cumbemayo Canal, which—more than 3,000 years before the building of the Panama Canal—linked waters that drained into the Pacific with those of the Atlantic watershed.

China, too, had a number of canals in ancient times. There the needs were different than in Egypt and Mesopotamia, due to a differing geographical configuration. Despite its large size, China has only one major coast, on the east. Though its major cities developed along the country's eastern portion, they tended to be river ports rather than seaports—yet most rivers in China run east to west, whereas the line of cities ran north to south. Thus the Chou Dynasty (1027-246 b.c.) saw numerous attempts to link the great Yangtze and Yellow rivers, and these efforts expanded greatly under the harsh Ch'in Dynasty (221-207 b.c.)

The latter is best remembered for another public-works project, the Great Wall, but this was far from the only large undertaking overseen by the autocrat Ch'in Shih-huang-ti (259?-210 b.c.). Decades before he seized control of the entire country in 246 b.c., his predecessors in the state of Ch'in had forced an army of slave-laborers to build a canal joining the Ching and Lo rivers. Once Shih-huang-ti unified China, making himself emperor, he brought Ch'in work-gang methods to bear on the country as a whole, creating a vast nationwide system of roads and canals to keep his armies supplied.

In the Near East during this time, a number of empires had risen and fallen. Babylonia reached its peak under Nebuchadnezzar II (630?-562 b.c.), renowned as the builder of Babylon's famous Hanging Gardens. These required an extensive network of irrigation canals to keep their trees and flowers watered, and indeed the construction of canals throughout the city was a hallmark of Babylon's magnificence. Yet in about 600 b.c. these life-giving canals yielded an unexpected product: malaria, dysentery, and other plagues bred by flies and mosquitoes living in stagnant canal-water.

It was not the plague, however, but the armies of Cyrus the Great (585?-529 b.c.), that brought an end to Babylonia with the Persian invasion of the capital city in 539 b.c. Cyrus would be succeeded by his son Cambyses II (reigned 529-522 b.c.), who added Egypt to the growing Persian Empire in 525 b.c. Cambyses's successor, Darius (550-486 b.c.), would in turn undertake the most impressive canal-building project up to that time.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus (484?-420? b.c.), Egypt's pharaoh Necho II (reigned 610-595) had begun a project to connect the Nile with the Red Sea; but after the Persian conquest of Egypt, it was Darius who completed the waterway. Herodotus reported that the canal was "four days' voyage in length, and it was dug wide enough for two triremes [fighting ships] to move in it rowed abreast." He also claimed that more than 120,000 workers died in its construction, but this was probably an exaggeration.

Some 50 miles (80 km) long, the canal was as much as 148 feet (45 m) wide and 10 feet (3 m) deep. Archaeologists in 1886 discovered the first of four stelae, or pillars, along the path of the ancient canal. Inscribed on these is the announcement of Darius: "I am Persian; from Persia I seized Egypt; I gave orders to dig this canal from a river by name Nile which flows in Egypt, to the sea which goes from Persia. Afterward this canal was dug; thus I had ordered and ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia. Thus was my desire."

It appears that as early as the New Kingdom era (1539-1070 b.c.), the Egyptians dug a canal from the Nile via the Wadi Tumilat to the Red Sea. However, that channel had long since been covered by sand, and a similar fate would attend Darius's ambitious project. It had to be re-excavated by Ptolemy I (366?-283? b.c.), the first Greek ruler of Egypt, and by the time of the last, Cleopatra (69-30 b.c.), parts of it had been completely blocked by sand. Later, the Roman emperor Trajan (53-117) had it cleaned out, after which time it was called "Trajan's River;" but as the Roman Empire declined, so did the Nile-Red Sea canal.

In the years that followed, a number of Roman rulers devoted themselves to canal projects, but by that point they were more concerned with the upkeep of existing waterways—including Roman ones, dating to about 100 b.c., in what is now France—rather than to new constructions. Between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of Islam, there were only two significant powers in the Near East, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, and the Sasanian Empire of Persia, whose Khosrow I (reigned a.d. 531-579) built and restored a number of irrigation canals. The most important canal-building project of the early medieval era, however, occurred in China.

With the rise of the Sui Dynasty (589-618), history seemed to repeat itself. Like the Ch'in some 800 years before, the Sui were a short-lived, highly autocratic ruling house of immeasurable importance to the country's history, and, also like the Ch'in, they put into place massive building projects undertaken by thousands of slave laborers. Yang Ti (580-618) ordered the construction of numerous canals, most notably the Grand Canal, which ran for some 1,100 miles (1,760 km) and connected the Yangtze River in the south with the Yellow River in the north. Not only did this make possible much greater centralization of authority in the vast nation, it encouraged commerce and influenced a major shift in population, from the heart of Chinese civilization in the north to the rice-growing lands of the south.

Like the Great Wall, the Grand Canal would be improved many times during the centuries that followed, but in the West canal-building came to a halt with the confusion brought on by the end of Roman rule. Europeans took hope from the brief state of order created by the rule of Charlemagne (742-814), and contemplated the deceptively simple-seeming project of connecting the Main and Danube rivers at their closest approach; but this proved much harder than it seemed, and in any case the peoples of Western Europe during that era were concerned chiefly with mere survival.

Only in the twelfth century and afterward, with projects such as the Naviglio Grande in Italy, did canal-building in Europe resume. The Chinese completed a 700-mi (1,110-km) branch of the Grand Canal in 1293, and introduced the crucial development of the canal lock. But by the time France built its famous Canal du Midi in 1681, Western nations had taken a decisive lead in the building of manmade waterways. This would culminate in the French completion of Suez, and the American project in Panama a few years later. In 1992, 12 centuries after Charlemagne, the Main-Danube Canal was completed.


Further Reading

Oxlade, Chris. Canals. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2000.

Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Ancient Transportation: From Camels to Canals. Minneapolis: Rinestone Press, 2000.

About this article

The Building of Canals in the Ancient World

Updated About content Print Article