With all the gridlock on our roadways, we forget that some of the world’s busiest transportation routes aren’t even on dry land. The oldest-known canals date back to 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, where they were used for irrigation. Yet these artificial waterways have played an even more crucial economic role in the development of civilization. By utilizing a series of locks, dams, and other engineered structures, canals create alternative freight channels and regulate maritime traffic of large ships, barges, and other water-bound vehicles. Here are five of the most important:
Opened in 1914, this 48-mile-long waterway through the Isthmus of Panama finally linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It also forever changed the way we travel, as ships were no longer required to sail the long, arduous journey around the tip of South America. A major expansion, completed in 2016, added a third set of locks. Zegrahm guests transit this engineering marvel on our 16-day Canal to Cuba with Panama, Costa Rica & Colombia expedition.
Stretching more than 100 miles through its namesake isthmus, the Suez Canal creates a crucial maritime route between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Construction started in 1859; the gateway opened 10 years later with a vow to accommodate vessels from all countries. Its tenuous location, however, has forced its closure five times, the most recent lasting eight years until the 1975 accord between Egypt and Israel.
Kaiser Wilhelm I laid the first stone for this important canal in 1887; his successor set down the final slab eight years later. Thus, the Baltic and North Seas were finally connected, allowing ships and barges to bypass the dubious route around Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula.
Also known as the Europa Canal, this 106-mile-long, 16-lock canal connects three of Western Europe’s principal rivers. Original construction began in the 1930s, although several expansions have been made to accommodate the increase in both cargo and passenger traffic. The last extension, completed in 1992, allowed ships to finally travel uninterrupted between the North and Black Seas.
The world’s oldest and longest man-made waterway is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covering more than 1,100 miles and 2,500 years of history, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal connects five of the major rivers in China. It also courses through one of the country’s richest agricultural regions, making its importance in China’s development second only to the mighty Yangtze River.