Xerxes pontoon bridge across the Hellespont.

Everyone has already heard of the seven wonders of the ancient world. So it would seem a bit pointless for Obscure Antiquity to reiterate what you probably already know. Let’s face it, the wonders of the world have been done to death, so with this in mind we thought we’d take a look at some equally magnificent engineering feats of antiquity that don’t really get the attention they deserve.


During the first Persian invasion of Greece, the Persian general Mardonius spearheaded the campaign and sailed to Greece with an army of 20,000 men onboard 300 ships. Whilst attempting to circumnavigate Mount Athos his Armada was struck by a tempest and catastrophically wrecked upon the shores of Mount Athos.

When the great king Xerxes returned with his Armada during the second Persian invasion he wanted to avoid the same calamity. Three years before his arrival he commanded a canal be dug through the isthmus of Athos, wide enough for two trireme to be rowed side by side. The largest civil engineering project to have ever taken place in ancient Greece and one of the only monuments the Persian host left behind in Europe. In this way the Persians made an island of Mount Athos. Herodotus reports-

“Most of the men engaged in the work made the cutting the same width at the top as it was intended to be at the bottom, with the inevitable result that the sides kept falling in, and so doubled their labor. Indeed they all made this mistake except the Phoenicians, who in this – as in all practical matters – gave a signal example of their skill. They, in the section allotted to them, took out a trench double the width prescribed for the actual finished canal, and by digging at a slope gradually contracted it as they got further down, until at the bottom their section was the same width as the rest.”



A lesser known fact is that the Suez canal of today is an ancient concept. The legendary conqueror Pharaoh Sesostris may have started work on an ancient canal joining the Nile with the Red Sea (1897 BC – 1839 BC). An irrigation channel was constructed around 1850 BC which was navigable during the flood season, leading into a dry river valley east of the Nile River Delta named Wadi Tumelat. It was called the Canal of the Pharaohs. A later canal, probably incorporating a portion of the first, was constructed under the reign of Necho II around 600BC, but the only fully functional canal was engineered and completed by Darius I of Persia in 500 BC. Thus allowing ships to pass from the Mediterranean to the red Sea 2400 years before the Suez canal.

To celebrate this achievement, Darius erected five monuments in Wadi Tumilat, named ‘Darius the Great’s Suez Inscriptions’. The monuments contain texts written in Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian and Egyptian, commemorating the opening of a canal between the Nile and the Bitter Lakes. The monument, also known as the Chalouf Stele, records the construction of a forerunner of the modern Suez Canal by the Persians, a canal through Wadi Tumilat. The stated purpose of the canal was the creation of a shipping connection between the Nile and the Red Sea, between Egypt and Persia. The surviving inscriptions read:

“King Darius says: I am a Persian; setting out from Persia. I conquered Egypt. I ordered to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. Therefore, when this canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended.”

Chalouf stele, Suez inscriptions


Egypt is dominated by the Nile river but there is another Oasis of Egyptian civilisation that existed miles away from the banks of the river. Lake Moeris was a remarkable freshwater lake that was located in the Faiyum basin about 80km from Cairo.

Although the natural lake in the desert was formed thousands of years before the Egyptians arrived. about 2300BC, possibly commanded by Pharaoh Amenemhat III a massive 15km canal was dug between the Nile and lake Moeris. In ancient times, it was known as Mer-Wer (the Great Canal) The canal was a stroke of genius finally controlling the unpredictable floodwaters of Nile by diverting them into the in the Fayium basin when it was high and then letting them flow back out during dry season. The stored waters also irrigated the surrounding landscape around the lake, fertilizing the land and creating a massive harvest where there was only desert before.

The canal was controlled by the Ha-Uar Dam, which was actually two dams that regulated the flow into the lake and out of the Nile. The canal became a productive fishery, yeilding the local Nile tilapia from nets cast over the waterway. The oldest known road in the world was built down to the lake from the basalt quarries worked nearby. The massive blocks were then shipped on barges to the Giza necropolis.

lake Morris was a fundamental part of Egyptian development, finally giving the Egyptians the ability to tame the Nile and control their economy throughout the year. An engineering marvel that controlled the world greatest river and terra-formed the desert lasting for over 2000 years.

“an even greater marvel is what is called Lake Moeris, beside which the labyrinth was built. The circuit of this lake is a distance of about 420 miles, which is equal to the whole seaboard of Egypt. The length of the lake is north and south, and its depth at the deepest is 50 fathoms [300 feet]. That it is handmade and dug, it itself is the best evidence. For in about the middle of the lake stand 2 pyramids that top the water, each one by 50 fathoms [300 feet], and each built as much again underwater; and on top of each there is a huge stone figure of a man sitting on a throne. So these pyramids are 100 fathoms [600 feet] high,  The water in the lake is not fed with natural springs, for the country here is terribly waterless, but it enters the lake from the Nile by a channel; and for 6 months it flows into the lake, and then, another 6, it flows again into the Nile. During the 6 months that it flows out, it brings into the royal treasury each day a silver talent for the fish from it; and when the water flows in, it brings 20 minas a day.

Lake Moeris and the Nile river


The harbour of Carthage is perhaps one of the most recognisable of antiquity. A fitting compliment to what was widely considered the most important trading hub of the ancient Mediterranean and was arguably one of the most affluent and enduring cities of the ancient world. The double harbour was separated into two parts. The first part open to the ocean was the vast rectangular merchant harbour where the trading empire landed goods from all over the ancient world. Both sides of the quay were utilised to unload cargo vessels and it is thought storehouses banked along the quayside. In times of war the harbour mouth could be shut off by drawing a huge iron chain across to thwart attempts to penetrate the harbour by sea.

The second part, beyond the merchant harbour, was the round naval base named The Cothon. This was a huge man-made, round harbour surrounded by sheltered slipways where naval ships could be drawn up for repairs. Above the raised docking bays was a second level consisting of warehouses where oars and rigging were kept along with supplies such as wood and canvas. In the centre of the man-made basin was an island banked again with raised slipways. The very centre of the island was topped by the Admiralty building looking out over the entire harbour. From here the Carthaginian naval commanders could manage the harbour activity. It is said that the Admiralty building held a highly coveted map of the known world at the time. It is said that the harbour could hold at least 220 vessels when at full capacity and was entirely surrounded by a defensive wall. Truly a magnificent feat of civil engineering but not entirely unique to Carthage. Cothon were a Phoenician innovation that could be found at other Phoenician ports across their trading colonies such as Kition on Cyprus, Moyta on Sicily and Mahdia in Tunisia but none reached the notoriety as that of Carthage.


In the 6th century BC the city of Samos faced a water shortage crisis. The current wells and cisterns within the city no longer capable of supplying the growing population, the city was faced with the task of finding a new source of fresh water. To this end they hired the Megarian architect Eupalinos to address the problem. A suitable freshwater spring existed on the far side of Mount Kastro almost a mile outside the city.

Eupalinos set about surveying the land and devised a geometric solution to digging a tunnel straight through Mount Kastro to bring water to the city all the while keeping it hidden if the city were to fall under siege. Excavation was begun at both ends of the tunnel simultaneously using Pythagorean geometry to ensure the tunnel was kept straight and would meet in the middle without impeding the flow of water.

The tunnel through Mount Kastro carried the water for a distance of 1,036 metres. The tunnel is generally 1.8 metres high by 1.8 metres wide. The southern half of the tunnel was dug to larger dimensions than the northern half, which in places is just wide enough for one person to squeeze through. The southern half, by contrast, benefits from being dug through a more stable rock stratum.  In three sections, a pointed roof of stone slabs was installed to prevent rockfalls. A 5 metre deep cistern was installed at the spring where the water was sourced. This was also covered over with huge slabs held by columns so it was hidden from would be attackers. A channel was dug round the mountain to bring the water to the tunnel.

I have dwelt longer upon the history of the Samians than I should otherwise have done, because they are responsible for three of the greatest building and engineering feats in the Greek world: the first is a tunnel nearly a mile long, eight feet wide and eight feet high, driven clean through the base of a hill nine hundred feet in height. The whole length of it carries a second cutting thirty feet deep and three broad, along which water from an abundant source is led through pipes into the town. This was the work of a Megarian named Eupalinus, son of Naustrophus.

Herodotus 6.30


During the Persian invasion of Greece the Persians were faced with the challenge of crossing over from Asia to Europe with their massive army. They decided to build a pontoon bridge across the narrow strip of ocean called the Hellespontine Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is situated at the mouth of the waterway leading to the black sea with the Dardanelles on the European side. At it’s narrowest point the Bosphorus is 1.4 kilometers wide and 91 meters deep with fast flowing currents leading into the agaean sea.

In preparation for Xerxes campaign he had ordered the construction of two bridges to receive his army upon arrival. Herodotus reports that when Xerxes vast army arrived the bridges that had been prepared for him had been destroyed by a tempest. In his fury he had the leading engineers beheaded and commanded his men to lash the waterway with whips and cast fetters into the sea, all the while his army shouted insults at the waters in a hilarious attempt to tame the turgid Hellespont.

Bitter water, our master thus punishes you, because you did him wrong though he had done you none. Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you want it or not; in accordance with justice no one offers you sacrifice, for you are a turbid and briny river.

Herodotus 7.30

After casting insults at the water he once again set about bridging the hellespont with two pontoon bridges. Herodotus reports that the phoenicians and Egyptians were each commanded to make the cables, one using a long rope of papyrus and the other using flax. The Pontoons were formed by drawing up over 360 vessels and anchoring them to the seabed and linking them together along the enormous cabels drawn between both shores and tightened by winches. After this was completed wooden planks were set upon the cabels and covered over with a layer of brushwood and earth to form a roadway, screens were erected at either side of the road to prevent animals panicking at the sight of the ocean about them.

With this work complete Xerxes had connected Europe to Asia and could begin crossing his vast Persian host. A throne was was built upon a hilltop by the men of abydos using white stone for the great king to oversee the crossing of his army. A boat race was also held in which the Phoenicians came off the victors. The crossing of the Hellespont took seven days and nights, the army using the northeasterly bridge and the huge crowd of attendants and baggage animals the southwesterly bridge.

With this work complete Xerxes had connected Europe to Asia and could begin crossing his vast Persian host. A throne was was carved from the bedrock for the great king to oversee the crossing of his army. A boat race was also held in which the Phoenicians came off the victors. The crossing of the Hellespont took seven days and nights, the army using the northeasterly bridge and the huge crowd of attendants and baggage animals the southwesterly bridge.


A little known queen of Babylon named Nitocris was responsible for altering the course of the great Euphrates river and creating a massive lake from it’s waters. Nitocris was queen of Babylon around 750BC.  The river Euphrates cut right through the middle of Babylon, making it a city of two halves.

Nitocris set about diverting the course of the Euphrates by digging trenches near a town called Adericca. They dug out wide curves making the river meander so much that it greatly increased its length, so much so that according to Herodotus it passed by the town of Adericca three times.

After digging the meandering trenches she also dug out a huge basin for the river to empty into. All this work slowed the current of the Euphrates and created a natural barrier against the Medes. Whilst the river was being emptied into the basin, the river in the city of Babylon ran dry. Nitocris took this opportunity to build a bridge across the dry riverbed connecting the two halves of the city. When the bridge was completed she diverted the Euphrates back into it’s original channel.

Now this remarkable marvel of ancient civil engineering was complete. Many years had come to pass when Cyrus the great of Persia came up against the city of Babylon. He set about besieging the city but found the great walls of Babylon too difficult to penetrate. The Babylonians had set aside great stores of supplies in anticipation of this attack. They shut themselves in the city and paid no heed to the Persians encamped outside, thinking that in time the would grow tired and hungry. Cyrus was at a loss as to what to do when an idea came upon him. He sent away the unwarlike portion of his army to divert the Euphrates into the lake dug by Nitocris, making the river run dry into the city. When this work was completed, he stationed his troops at the river mouth where the river passed through the city walls. When the river became low enough, his troops waded through it and into the city. They caught the Babylonians completely by surprise and made themselves masters of that place with ease.

First she dealt with the river Euphrates, which flows through the middle of her city; this had before been straight; but by digging canals higher up she made the river so crooked that its course now passes thrice by one of the Assyrian villages; the village which is so approached by the Euphrates is called Ardericca. And now those who travel from our seas to Babylon must as they float down the Euphrates spend three days in coming thrice to the same village. Such was this work; and she built an embankment along either shore of the river, marvellous for its greatness and height. Then a long way above Babylon she dug the basin of a lake, a little way aside from the river, digging always deep enough to find water, and making the circuit of the lake a distance of four hundred and twenty furlongs; all that was dug out of the basin she used to embank either edge of the river; and when she had it all dug, she brought stones and made therewith a coping all round the basin. Her purpose in making the river to wind and turning the basin into a marsh was this — that the current might be slower by reason of the many windings that broke its force, and that the passages to Babylon might be crooked, and that next after them should come also the long circuit of the lake. All this work was done in that part of the country where are the passes and the shortest road from Media, that the Medes might not mix with her people and learn of her affairs.


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