10 Oldest Canals in the World

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People have been building canals since the earliest civilizations were formed in Mesopotamia. These early canals were used for irrigation and over time people started building larger canals to use for transportation. While these ancient canals no longer exist, the canals on this list have been in operation hundreds of years. Some of these canals still used to transport goods, while others are now only tourist attractions or historical sites.

As of July 2020, the information on this list is as accurate as possible and will be updated as needed.

10. Suez Canal

Years Built: 1859 – 1869
Location: Isthmus of Suez, Egypt
Length: 120.1 miles (193.3 km)

Suez Canalphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Built in the mid-19th century, the Suez Canal is still one of the most important waterways in the world. The Suez Canal actually traces its origins back to Ancient Egypt and it was the first canal to directly link the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The canal was rebuilt several times before the modern permanent canal was constructed.

The Suez Canal is important because it enables a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia, effectively allowing for passage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean without having to circumnavigate the African continent. Unfortunately, as such a vital route for international trade, control of the Suez Canal has been fought over since it opened in 1869.

Did You Know?

French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who sculpted the Statue of Liberty, originally tried to build his sculpture called “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia” at the Mediterranean entrance of the Suez Canal.


9. Caledonian Canal

Years Built: 1803 – 1822
Location: Inverness to Corpach, Scotland
Length: 60 miles (97 km)

Caledonian Canalphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Caledonian Canal is one of the oldest existing canals in Scotland and dates back to the early 19th century. The canal was started in 1803 to plans produced by Thomas Telford following survey work by James Watt thirty years earlier. Construction of the Caledonian Canal was plagued by many problems and it took 17 years – 12 more than originally planned – to complete. Commercially, the Caledonian Canal was not initially a success, but it quickly became a popular tourist attraction. Today, the Caledonian Canal is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and attracts half a million visitors each year.

Did You Know?

Queen Victoria’s trip along the Caledonian Canal in 1873 helped to popularize the canal and increased visitors to the area.


8. Bridgewater Canal

Years Built: 1759 – 1761
Location: North West England
Length: 41 miles (66 km)

Bridgewater Canalphoto source: geograph.org.uk

The Bridgewater Canal is often considered the first true canal ever built in England. The canal was commissioned by (and named for) Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, to transport coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. Bridgewater Canal was the first canal in country to be built without following an existing waterway and served as the template for later canals. Like most of the other canals on this list, the Bridgewater Canal no longer serves as a route for transporting goods, but is mostly just used for recreation. Although Bridewater Canal is important to British history, it is one of the few canals that has not been nationalized and is still privately owned.

Did You Know?

The success of the Bridgewater Canal’s construction sparked a period of intense canal building in Britain, called Canal Mania.


7. Canal du Midi

Years Built: 1667 – 1681
Location: Southern France
Length: 150 miles (240 km)

Canal du Midiphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The Canal du Midi is heralded as one of the greatest feats of engineering in the 17th century. For several centuries, a canal was proposed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Various leaders, including Augustus, Nero, Charlemagne, François I, Charles IX, and Henry IV dreamt of building a canal in the area and while many projects were started, none of them came to fruition until the Canal du Midi was built. While the Canal du Midi is no longer a major transportation route, it is still used for recreation, tourism, and irrigation.

Did You Know?

It took 12,000 laborers 15 years to build the Canal du Midi.


6. Briare Canal

Years Built: 1604 – 1642
Location: Loire and Seine valleys, France
Length: 35 miles (57 km)

Briare Canalphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The Briare Canal is one of the oldest man-made waterways in France and it was the first summit-level canal in Europe that was built using pound locks. Connecting the Loire and Seine valleys, the Briare Canal was vital in transporting goods to Paris. In the 19th century, the Briare Canal was enlarged and a pumping station was added to pump water into the summit pond. This allowed the Briare Canal to stay in use during periods of droughts.

Did You Know?

Although many goods were transported along the Briare Canal, in the 18th century, more than 500 wine barges traveled along the canal carrying wines from the Auvergne, Mâcon, Beaujolais, Sancerre, and Languedoc regions.


5. Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht

Years Built: 17th century
Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Length: 1.5 miles (2.4 km) – Herengracht; 1.7 miles (2.8 km) – Keizersgracht; and 2 miles (3.2 km) – Prinsengracht

photo source: Wikimedia Commons via Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA)

While the Singel dates all the way back to the 15th century, Amsterdam’s famous Canal Ring (Grachtengordel) was born during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. Along with the Singel, the main canals of the ring are Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. It took over 50 years to build these three canals and the project was completed around 1660. The Canal Ring made Amsterdam four times larger than it was originally and the Canal Ring is one of the most navigable waterway in the world. In total, the Canal Ring covers an area of 160 hectares and a total length of 8.7 miles (14 km).

Did You Know?

The Canal Ring is a UNESCO Heritage Site and also houses over 1,000 other monuments, including the Anne Frank House.


4. Singel

Years Built: 1428 – 1450
Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Length: 1 miles (1.6 km)

Singelphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Singel is the oldest of Amsterdam’s main canals and dates back to the 15th century. The canal was originally a moat that surrounded the entire city before Amsterdam began to expand beyond the Singel. As the innermost canal in Amsterdam’s semicircular ring of canals, Singel is very small at only 1 mile (1.6 km) long. Although Singel is pretty short, there are about 280 listed/notable buildings along the canal.

Did You Know?

There are 11 bridges that cross over the Singel, including Torensluis which is the widest bridge in Amsterdam.


3. Grand Canal (Venice)

Years Built: c.12th century – 18th century
Location: Venice, Italy
Length: 2.4 miles (3.8 km)

Grand Canalphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

While the entire city of Venice is covered in canals, the Grand Canal is its main waterway and many of the city’s other canals feed into the Grand Canal. It is believed that the Grand Canal follows the course of an ancient river and that the surrounding area was settled sometime around the 9th century. As trade in Venice grew, more permanent structures were built along the banks of the canal, forming it into the route it takes today. The oldest existing structures along the Grand Canal date back to 13th century. As Venice’s main canal, the Grand Canal is a popular tourist attraction.

Did You Know?

Each year on the first Sunday of September, the Historical Regatta takes place on the Grand Canal, which pays tribute to when the Queen of Cyprus Catherine Cornaro arrived in Venice in 1489


2. Naviglio Grande

Years Built: 1177 – 1272
Location: Lombardy, Italy
Length: 31 miles (49.9 km)

Naviglio Grandephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The Naviglio Grande is the oldest canal in Europe and was once the most important canal in Milan. Construction of Naviglio Grande began in 1177, but there were many setbacks and the canal was not completed until 1272. Initially, the Naviglio Grande was only supposed to be used for irrigation, but pontoons called cobbie immediately started transporting goods. In 1979, transportation along the Naviglio Grande was shut down for good and it is once again being used only for irrigation. However, there has been interest in opening the canal back up for transportation in recent years.

Did You Know?

During the late 14th century, the Naviglio Grande was used to transport stone and marble for building the famous Duomo (Milan Cathedral).


1. The Grand Canal (China)

Years Built: 5th century BCE
Location: runs through Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Hangzhou, China
Length: 1,115 miles (1,794 km)

The Grand Canalphoto source: Wikimedia Commons


The Grand Canal in China was first built in the 5th century BCE, making it the oldest canal in the world. Work on the Grand Canal began in 486 BCE after Fuchai, King of the State of Wu, ordered that a canal be built for trading purposes. This part of the Grand Canal is still in use today even though the canal has had three major renovations in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE-476 BCE), the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Grand Canal has also been updated in more recent years as well. In addition to being the oldest canal, the Grand Canal is also the world’s longest canal, spanning 1,115 miles (1,794 kilometers).

Did You Know?

In the past when the Grand Canal served as the main transportation route between northern and southern China, more than 8,000 boats transported four to six million dan (240,000–360,000 metric tons) of grain each year.


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