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Canal du Midi

This 360-km network of navigable waterways linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic through 328 structures (locks, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels, etc.) is one of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering in modern times. Built between 1667 and 1694, it paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. The care that its creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet, took in the design and the way it blends with its surroundings turned a technical achievement into a work of art.

Justification for Inscription

The Committee decided to inscribe the nominated property on the basis of cultural criteria (i), (ii), (iv) and (vi) considering that the site is of outstanding universal value being one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Modern Age, providing the model for the flowering of technology that led directly to the Industrial Revolution and the modern technological age. Additionally, it combines with its technological innovation a concern for high aesthetic architectural and landscape design that has few parallels. The Committee endorsed the inscription of this property as the Canal du Midi clearly is an exceptional example of a designed landscape

Long Description

The Canal du Midi is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the modern age, providing the model for the flowering of technology that led directly to the Industrial Revolution and the modern technological age. It represents a significant period in European history, that of the development of water transport as a result of mastery of hydraulic civil engineering. It combines with its technological innovation a concern for high aesthetic architectural and landscape design that has few parallels.

Investigations into the possibilities of creating canals joining the major natural waterways began in the early 16th century, when François I brought Leonardo da Vinci with him on his return to France. One of their projects envisaged linking the Garonne and the Aude rivers, and thus the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. The first successful enterprise was the Canal de Briaré, joining the Loire and the Seine, which was completed in 1642. Solution of the technical problems involved rekindled interest in the Mediterranean-Atlantic link and a number of projects were put forward. It was to become a reality thanks to a very favourable political climate in France at the time, and also to the availability of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who began work on the project in 1654. He considered a number of possible routes to link the Garonne with the Aude and to surmount the watershed between the two rivers at Naurouze, which presented special problems of water supply. He enlisted the aid of local expert: Pierre Campmas, who was responsible for the water supply of the town of Revel, at the foot of the Montagne-Noire massif, Francois Andreossy, a civil engineer specializing in hydraulic projects, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, at that time Intendant des Finances for Louis XIV, who was tireless in his efforts to encourage the creation of industries in France.

Colbert quickly realized the importance of the proposed canal in this connection, and he gave his full support to Riquet’s project. A Royal Edict announcing the construction of the canal was issued in October 1666 and letters-patent were granted to Riquet; however, this authorized him to construct only the western section, between the Garonne at Toulouse and the Aude at Trèbes. He was authorized to construct the second section, between Trèbes and Sète on the Mediterranean coast, in 1669.

The project underwent many vicissitudes and financial crises in the years that followed, but it was largely completed when Riquet died in 1681. Following persistent complaints about the flooding of neighbouring agricultural land, the great military architect Vauban was sent to the Canal; as a result of his report a number of aqueducts were built and the Saint-Ferréol dam was raised in height. The final elements of the entire system were completed in 1694.

There are five components of this property, and the total length of the waterway is 360 km. The main Canal du Midi runs from Toulouse to the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean coast at Marseillan; there is a branch between Moussan and Port-la-Nouvelle, incorporating part of the earlier Canal de la Robine. The waters of the Montagne-Noire are brought to the canal through two channels that join together and flow into the Canal at Naurouze. The canal de Saint-Pierre is the link between the main canal and the Garonne at Toulouse. Finally, there is a short section joining the Hérault River to the round lock at Agde. The ensemble contains 328 works of art – locks, aqueducts, bridges, spillways, tunnels, etc. One of its most noteworthy features is the Saint-Ferréol dam on the Laudot River in the Montagne-Noire region. This is the largest project on the entire canal and the greatest work of civil engineering of its time, Riquet was conscious that he was creating a symbol of the power of 17th-century France as well as a functional communication waterway. He was assiduous, therefore, in ensuring that the quality of the architecture on the Canal was worthy of this role. The bridges, the locks and their associated structures, and the tunnel entrances were therefore designed with monumental dignity and simplicity. He was also very conscious of the impact of his work on the landscape, and took great pains to ensure that it was suitably framed by trees and plantations that harmonized with the landscape through which it passed.

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC