The cutting of canals for irrigation has been an essential part of the civilization of Mesopotamia, controlling the water of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Several canals link the two rivers, and small boats use these waterways. But the world’s first canal created purely for water transport is an incomparably more ambitious affair.
Between about 520 and 510 BC the Persian emperor, Darius I, invests heavily in the economy of his newly conquered province of Egypt. He builds a canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea. Its access to the sea is close to modern Ismailia, which much later becomes the terminus of another great waterway, the Suez canal.
The Chinese (the greatest early builders of canals) undertake several major projects from the 3rd century BC onwards. These waterways combine the functions of irrigation and transport. Over the centuries more and more such canals are constructed. Finally, in the Sui dynasty (7th century AD), vast armies of labourers are marshalled for the task of joining many existing waterways into the famous Grand Canal. Barges can now travel all the way from the Yangtze to the Yellow River, and then on up the Wei to the western capital at Xi’an. Along this great Chinese thoroughfare the rice harvest of the Yangtze is conveyed to the centres of political power in the north.