It is probably the oldest harbour in Europe. The oldest one in this function till today, without interruption. And it is situated in the country with the oldest culture in Europe – Greece. The founding of Piraeus as a port goes back more than 2500 years.
There are the first settlements in Piraeus in 1300 BC. From 560 BC onward, a route network from Piraeus to the hinterland, the Attica peninsula and especially to Athens is built. Themistocles convinces the Athenians in 483 BC to enlarge their battle fleet and move the base to Piraeus. A clever move as in 480 BC the Greeks defeat the Persians in the Battle of Salamis which makes the latter consequently withdraw back to Asia. A year later, the port is being extended and from then on not only used as a naval base but also as commercial harbour. Building the Long Walls is initiated by Themistocles to protect the 6 km connecting road between Athens and its harbour as of now. Under Pericles the works are completed and definitely have their share in the harbour‘s developments.
In Byzantine times, however, Athens loses importance after the definite secession of the Eastern Roman Empire in 395 AD with its capital in Constantinople. In this context, Piraeus and the harbour report a decline as well. In the beginning, it remains a naval base during the 4th century under Constantine the Great. But it decays step by step, and an earthquake in 551 even destroys the remaining harbour installations. It is true, in the following centuries time and again soon-to-be emperors and empresses embark from Piraeus with the destination Constantinople where they are crowned and ascend to the throne. But one should definitely not think of Piraeus as a large trade port at that time. With the steady decline of the Byzantine Empire troops from the west keep invading the region. It is the Crusaders in 1205, Venetians and Catalans in the following years and centuries, until in 1456 the Ottomans from the East finally put Athens and Piraeus under their sovereignty.
Just as before, also under Ottoman rule that lasts until 1824, Venetians invade and capture Piraeus several times to use it as satellite spot in the Mediterranean. Besides Constantinople, of course, other cities like Thessaloniki and Smyrna are of much higher importance, though, for the trade between Western and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Near and Far East. In 1824 Piraeus is deliberated from the Turks in the course of the Greek struggle for independence. And as the capital of the newly founded Greek state is moved from Navplio to Athens, this means recovery and rise for Piraeus as well.
There are the first figures for 1850: 7.000 ships put in and put out to sea, with an overall loading volume of 130.000 tons. But besides that, a 30.000 passengers, out of who 28.000 domestic (trade) travellers, are carried because Piraeus, even back then, was a favourite spot for people to embark and disembark. Ten years later we find 301 sailing vessels registered with a volume of almost 15.000 tons where one can also understand how much the ships have changed in size. In 1868 quaysides are built, in 1869 the railroad to Athens is completed and in 1976 the first hoisting crane is installed. In the following year, an indespensible deepening of the harbour basin is accomplished in order to handle the increasing traffic density. It is symptomatic for these developments that in 1890 a transshipment in the height of 1.5 million tons is reported and fifteen years later it has reached even 3.25 million tons. Two important milestones in the following years are the establishment of the Port Committee in 1911 and the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP) in 1930, that is responsible for the management until today. Two years later, the free trade area that still exists today is instituted and the first two bridge cranes are installed, the predecessor of the modern container bridge.
Greece’s engagement in the First and Second World War as well as German occupation put the harbour back in years. Explosions of munitions destroy big parts of the harbour area in 1941 and have severe material impact on the city. When German troops withdraw in 1944, they blast the remaining quaysides and harbour installations. Despite the following Civil War, reconstruction and development in the harbour as well as in the city itself are pushed forward with a lot of money and energy.
The first container bridge is put into operation in 1975, but three years later the container port already has to be extended and a year later a warehouse for reefer containers is implemented. In these years, however, it is not only about extension, expansion and enlargement. Other qualities are integrated into the harbour, too. In this course, greenery and trees are planted in the central area that also houses the administration. Parts of the old city walls are restored as a part of cultural heritage from ancient times. The Central Passenger Terminal gains a co-function as exhibition spot where national and international exhibitions and cultural events are held. With the Olympic Games of Athens in 2004, there is the programme called Olympic Hospitality which means that in the light of safety and comfort, athletes from several countries as well as international guests have their accommodation on ships as swimming hotels in the harbour of Piraeus. It turns out to be a great success.
Having a surface of roughly 39 km², Piraeus is today one of the world‘s busiest ports. Based on its container handling of 3.67 million TEU it is ranked 38 in the world, and besides Piraeus is the largest container port in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. Three container terminals have capacities of 6.7 million TEU. There is a cargo terminal providing transshipment capacities in the height of 25 million TEU as well as storage capacities of 180.000 m². Furthermore, the harbour has a car terminal for the storage of 12.000 cars in a space of 180.000 m² and annual handling capacities of 670.000 units. But Piraeus is not only of importance for trading goods. As a venue for cruises and regional ferry boat trips it recently announced 19 million passengers in its annual report and thus occupies the third place worldwide and the first among the harbours in Europe. Based on the economically very positive developments in Greece‘s tourism, there are upward trends for the cruise business in Piraeus for the years to come.
In the course of privatization programmes, the state was forced to sell part of the port to the highest-bidding potential buyer a few years ago. The one who won the bid was the Chinese giant Cosco from Shanghai. With effect from 10/08/2016 Cosco holds 51% of the shares, but the administrative entity remains the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP) without changing the name. The practical implementation of an investment programme started very quickly. The investments are mostly focused on improvements of the infrastructure through modernization of quaysides, pavements, rails and electric supply mains. Already now, one and a half year after Cosco‘s taking over, the most recent numbers for 2017 were highly positive with 68.8% growth in profits (from 6.7 million € to 11.3 million €) and 7.7% growth in overall transshipment (from 103.5 million € to 111.5 million €).
2500 years of history on the back. A burden that could force you to your knees. But the Greeks themselves with their eventful history always found a way to get back on their feet and carry on. And in the same way, Piraeus as Greece‘s most important harbour, with all the people who have their share working there, always found a way to move on. It joins the ranks of the largest ports in Europe and the world. And based on the positives figures from the last year, people are quite sanguine about the port‘s future and game for future challenges.