channel (of course), 300 feet (92 meters) wide at the bottom and up to 1,800 feet (550 meters) wide at the top; a massive earth dam at Gatun (to provide water for the locks from what was then the world’s largest artificial lake); and a series of three locks at Gatun at the Atlantic end, a set of two more at Pedro Miguel, and another single lock at Miraflores at the Pacific end. Each of the locks is 110 feet (933.6 meters) wide and over 1,000 feet (304 meters) long. The locks and their gates were built in the United States, transported in sections, and concreted together. Water flows in and out through culverts in their walls, and double sets of doors at each end protect the canal. Railroad locomotives move the ships in and out of the locks. A breakwater at the Pacific end, constructed with the spoil from the excavation, prevents silt blockage of the mouth. Defensive works at both entrances maintain security. The widening of the Gaillard Cut was completed in 1970, allowing two-way passage of vessels through the entire waterway.

The Panama Canal was officially opened on 15 August 1914 by the passage of the S.S. Ancon, although the first vessel to cross the isthmus was in fact the Cristobal. The project was completed on time and under budget by $23 million. American costs over the ten-year construction period totaled $352 million, and it is estimated that the French had earlier spent a further $287 million. More than 80,000 people had been employed to build the canal, and it is surmised that about 30,000 died, mostly through disease. Since 1903 the United States has invested another $3 billion, of which about 65 percent has been recouped through tolls. The Panama Canal is used for almost all inter-oceanic sea traffic. At first around 2,000 ships a year navigated it; currently, the number is in the order of 15,000 and only the modern supertankers and container vessels are too wide to pass through the locks. Ships pay a toll based on tonnage, and although the cost seems high, it is much less than that of the time and fuel involved in sailing around South America.

The original Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama granted the United States a perpetual lease on a 10-mile-wide (16-kilometer) strip of land—the Canal Zone—flanking both sides of the canal. Probably for military reasons, the United States repeatedly interfered in Panama’s affairs until 1936, when it finally gave up its right to use troops outside the Canal Zone. Disputes about the canal contract continued until two new treaties were signed in 1977. They provided that the canal would be operated by the Panama Canal Commission, a U.S. government agency appointed to replace the former Panama Canal Company, from October 1979 until the end of 1999. Then control passed to Panama, in the face of vocal opposition from a largely right-wing lobby in the United States that still refers to the waterway as “United States Canal in Panama,” believing that the handover presented a serious threat to their country.

See also

Suez Canal

Further reading

Jaén Suárez, Omar, et al. 1999. The Panama Canal. Paris: UNESCO.

McCullough, David. 1999. The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wood, Robert E. 1963. Monument for the World: Building the Panama Canal. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Rome, Italy

As its name suggests, the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to many gods. Its seven interior niches housed statues of Apollo, Diana, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, and the great dome also had religious significance since it symbolized the heavens. Even now, when stripped of much of its enrichment, the scale and simple geometry of the Pantheon awe the visitor. Moreover, its sophisticated engineering stirs imagination for its ancient engineers. Many of their modern counterparts are at a loss to understand how the structural system worked, much less how it has survived for two millennia. The great Florentine artist Michelangelo Buonarotti concluded that it was the result of “angelic and not human design.”

The first Pantheon was built in 27 b.c. for Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus Caesar. Except for lower parts of the porch and foundation, it was irretrievably damaged by fire in a.d. 80, and reconstruction to a slightly different design was commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian. The present building dates from between 118 and 128, although some scholars believe that it was completed under Pius about twelve years later. Lucius Septimius Severus and Caracalla sponsored a restoration in 202. In 609 the building was presented to Pope Boniface IV by the Byzantine emperor Phocas, and it was dedicated as the Church of St. Mary of the Martyrs (now Santa Maria Rotonda) on 13 May.