Presentation of the canal of Xerxes


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In 483 BC King Xerxes I of Persia, in preparation for the Second Persian invasion of Greece, ordered a canal built through the base of Mount Athos peninsula in Chalkidiki, northern Greece. 

Presentation of the canal of Xerxes
Aerial photo of Nea Roda area [Credit: Municipality of Aristotelis]

“Now when the fleet had left Xerxes,” the Greek historian Herodotus writes (Hdt. 7.122-3), “it sailed through the Athos canal which reached to the gulf in which are located the towns of Assa, Pilorus, Singus, and Sarte. The fleet took on board troops from all these cities and then headed for the Thermaic gulf. Then rounding Ampelus, the headland of Torone, it passed the Greek towns of Torone, Galepsus, Sermyle, Mecyberna, and Olynthus, all of which gave them ships and men. This country is called Sithonia.”

The canal is located near the modern village of Nea Roda in the Athos peninsula. Starting to the east of Nea Roda on the north coast it follows a fairly straight south-westerly direction towards the south coast where it ends west of the village Tripiti, connecting Ierissos Bay with the Singitic Gulf.

Presentation of the canal of Xerxes
Photo showing course of the Xerxes Canal [Credit: Municipality of Aristotelis]

According to Herodotus, the opening of the canal was undertaken by Xerxes in order to prevent his ships from suffering the fate of Mardonius’ fleet in 492 BC, who lost 300 ships and 20,000 men in a storm going around the cliffs of the Athos peninsula, during the First Persian invasion of Greece.

The work, led by the two Persians Bubares and Artachaies, lasted three years. It was completed in 480 BC by forcibly recruited locals, as well as Egyptian and Phoenician workers. The length, according to Herodotus, was 12 stadia (about 2 km), and it was wide enough to accommodate two triremes rowed side by side. It was capped at both ends by dikes to prevent surf from clogging it.

Presentation of the canal of Xerxes
Location of the northern entrance of the canal (cove to the left)
[Credit: Chryspan/Wikipedia]

It is noteworthy that the canal was abandoned after it was opened, which is why, according to the archaeologists, there are no remains of buildings around it. Indeed, the last known reference to the Xerxes Canal is by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War some 80 years after its construction. Eventually, the canal was completely covered by sediments and the veracity of Herodotus’ claims was questioned even in ancient times. 

Although early archaeological surveys found evidence of the canal in the central part of the isthmus, the length and width of the canal was in dispute, as was the question of whether the canal reached all the way across the isthmus or if ships were dragged through parts of it. 

Presentation of the canal of Xerxes
Map by William Robert Shepherd in 1923 whowing the base of the Athos peninsula,
with the position of the canal marked [Credit: Wikipedia]

A British and Greek collaborative geophysical investigation launched in the 1990s found through the use of seismic survey and sediment analysis that the canal had indeed crossed the whole isthmus.

“The Xerxes canal in the area of ​​Chalkidiki is today the only technical footprint of the Persians in Europe and is therefore clearly unique,” said the Mayor of Aristotelis, Stelios Valianos. “Obviously it is worth understanding how the canal was technically and technologically made at that time,” Valianos added. 

Presentation of the canal of Xerxes
Satellite photo of Mount Athos peninsula and simulation of the Xerxes Canal (seen from north)
[Credit: Konstantinos Tamateas/Wikipedia]

“However, the area was a garbage dump with unmanaged vegetation. We cleaned it up and highlighted it as a geographical point. That is, one can now, after this intervention, locate the site of the canal and especially where it extended to. We will undertake moderate interventions in cooperation with the Ephorate of Antiquities of Chalkidiki and Mount. Athos, like the installation of information boards and the creation a point of commemoration,” said Mr. Valianos, adding that “the interventions will be made with resources from the funds of the municipality.”

The area has also been included by the Municipality of Aristotelis in the network of local hiking trails where visitors can now follow in the footsteps of the Persian King Xerxes. The Municipality, with the agreement of the archaeological service, also plans to create parks within the area of the Xerxes canal focused on the crops of Greek antiquity, namely vines, olives, figs, pomegranates, and so on.

Source: Sputnik Hellas & Wikipedia [trsl. TANN; April 11, 2021]

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