While we are looking forward to the start of the Olympic Games, let us return briefly to Olympia and ancient Greece, to the place where it all began.
It was a world ruled by gods, and the greatest honour for every citizen was to participate and win in the famous Olympic Games, during which conflicts and wars were stopped.
Olympia is one of the most famous sites of ancient Greece. It is located on the western side of the Peloponnese peninsula. Actually, Olympia was a very important religious sanctuary of ancient Greece, dedicated to the worship of the God Zeus. But mostly it is known by the place where the first Olympic Games were held.
Today in Olympia we can many ruins of temples, various buildings, and the stadium. Also, on the archaeological site, there are two museums with fantastic collections of statues and items found during excavations around the region of Olympia. It was inscribed on the UNESCO Heritage World list. in 1989.
So, let’s take a walk between the temples and find out how the Olympic games were born.
A few words about the Ancient Olympia
Olympia belongs to the district of Elis. It is located in the green valley, on the slopes of Mount Kronos, between rivers of Kladeous and Alpheio.
A story about Olympia goes back to the first sanctuaries and prehistoric cults, from the Final Neolithic period, Bronze Age, Helladic periods, Pan-Hellenic times, and to the end of the Mycenaean period. According to excavations, it is believed that Olympia was settled approximately 1200 BC by Aetolians under the leadership of Oxylos, the founder of Elis state.
Zeus had a dominant role in this area, and the largest temple is dedicated to him. From that time, Olympia was the main sanctuary and it has remained like this for many centuries. But in 522 and 551, it was devastated by earthquakes and flooded by the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos as well.
Unfortunately, Olympia was buried in mud and sand about 5-7 metres deep and abandoned until 1766, when it was rediscovered. The excavations continued in 1829 by the French Scientific Expedition of the Peloponnese, and in 1875 by the German Archaeological Institute. Even today there are still researches on ancient monuments.
What to see in the ancient Olympia
On the left side of the site, there is the fantastic Archaeological Museum. Just follow the path surrounded by pink flowers and you will come to the archaeological site of Altis, the sacred grove of Zeus. It is believed that it was formed during the 10th and 9th centuries BC when the cult of Zeus was probably established. Around the Altis and its sacred temples, there are various buildings.
The full price for the visit to the archaeological site including the museums is 12 euros.
Prytaneion and Kronion thermae
The first ruins in the northwest corner of the Altis belong to the Prytaneion.
The building dates back from the 5th BC. It was the seat of prytaneis and the government in ancient Greece. Also, it was the place of a sacred hearth on which burned a “perpetual fire”. There was a banquet room in which the Olympic victors were feasted after the Games, as well.
Near Prytaneion, there are remains of the Kronion thermae. During the Hellenistic period, it was a big complex with a bath, but it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 3rd century AD. Today we can see the fantastic remains of the mosaic from the Roman period.
Heraion, the Temple of Hera in Olympia
On the left side of Altis, there is an impressive temple of Hera, built in the middle of the 7th century BC.
It is one of the most important temples dedicated to this goddess. The temple is long and narrow with six Doric columns across the ends, and 16 columns along the sides in different styles. According to legend, the disc of the Sacred Truce was kept there.
In front of the Temple of Hera was the altar of Hera. And it was a place where the Olympic flame was originally lit.
And I don’t know why, but Hera is one of my favourite goddesses from Greek mythology. She was born on the beautiful Greek island of Samos. You can read more about her and Heraion sanctuary on Samos in the following post.
Close to the temple of Hera, there is a marvellous Philippeion, a unique circular building on the site.
Philip II of Macedonia dedicated it to God Zeus after one victory in 336. After Philip”s death, his son Alexander the Great finished the temple. Once there were the statues of King Philip, his wife Olympia, his son Alexander, and the king parents. The temple is partly restored in 2005.
Today only three remaining columns could be seen, and they look stunning.
Metron, The Nymphaion and The Treasures
To the right of the temple of Hera, there is Metron, the temple of Cybele, the Mother of the Gods from 4th BC.
On the north of the site, close to Metron, there are remains of Treasuries. They are date back to the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Valuable offerings and items were kept in these small temple-shaped buildings.
Among them, there are ruins of the Nymphaion, a monumental semi-circular fountain. It supplied the sanctuary via water by a 4-kilometre long aqueduct fed by local springs in the hill. According to the inscription, Herodotus Atticus was a financier of the aqueduct, and his wife Aspasia Annia Regilla paid for the fountain. Also, she dedicated to Zeus the statue of a bull, which once stood in the centre of the fountain.
Today you can see it in the Olympia Archeological Museum, together with marble statues of members of the Roman Imperial Antonine dynasty and the family of Herodes Atticus.
The Ancient Stadium of Olympia
Welcome to the Stadium, the place where the first Olympic Games were held!
Altis sanctuary and stadium are connected by the Crypt, a stone passageway, built at the end of the 3rd century BC.
And when I walked between its walls, I tried to imagine the view of the stadium and the roar of the crowd outside the walls in ancient times.
The stadium is 212.54 m (697.3 ft) long and 30–34 m (98–112 ft) wide. On the south bank of the stadium, there is the „exedra“, a stone platform, on which the judges sat. There were no permanent seats, but around it, on the grass, about 40.000 spectators could be present.
Since the first competitions were races, there were the white blocks used to align the feet of all the athletes, that everyone runs the same distance. And it is interesting that this original start still survives!
I will tell you later more about the history of the Olympic Games.
Echo portico and the House of Neron
Echo portico building (the Echo Stoa) separated stadium and Altis, built around 350 BC. It was famous for its acoustics because the sound was repeated seven times. In front of the portico was erected the votive monument of Ptolemy II with two ionic columns about 8,5 meters high. Today only one could be seen.
Close to it, there are ruins of the House of Nero, the Roman emperor.
It was built on the former altar of Artemis and sanctuary of Hestia, in the octagonal shape, and it was known as Octagon. Actually, Nero lived there during his participation in the Olympic Games of 67 AD.
By the way, it was a famous event when he took part in a chariot race in the Hippodrome. He was thrown out of his chariot and did not finish the race, but he declared himself as the winner! Certainly, no one could say anything different under his rule.
The Temple of Zeus
According to Greek mythology, Zeus was the king of gods and the god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order, and justice. The temple of Zeus was built in the second quarter of the 5th century BC in the Doric style.
Once it had thirteen columns on both sides and six columns on each of both ends. Even the whole construction was never complete, the local architect Libon from Elis did an excellent job.
The temple was decorated with mosaics and many marble statues. Some of them you can see in the Archeological Museum.
But the most important statue was a 13m tall chryselephantine statue of the God Zeus. Also, this statue was considered one of the Seven wonders of the ancient world.
So Zeus has presented sitting on the throne, holding a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory in the right hand, and a sceptre in the left hand. Pheidias, the most talented sculptor of ancient Greece made it in his workshop which is located close to the temple of Zeus.
Unfortunately, today we can see only the remains of the columns because the temple and the statue of Zeus were destroyed by earthquakes in 522 and 551 AD. Actually, only one column was restored in 2004, by the German Archaeological Society on the occasion of the Athens Olympics Games.
The Pheidias workshop
Thanks to the excavations in the 1950s, the Pheidias workshop was found with various pottery items, tools and materials.
By the way, Pheidias made the famous statue of Athena (Athena Parthenos) in the temple of Parthenon in Athens.
In the 5th century AD, it was converted into an Early Christian church.
The bouleuterion – Council House
The Bouleuterion was built in the 6th century BC. It was the seat of the Olympic Senate, located outside the Altis to the south. Once there were two Doric buildings and it had many modifications. In this place, all athletes have to swear the oath that they will play honourably.
Close to the bouleuterion, there are ruins of the Leonidaeum. Well, it was a guest house for visitors to the sanctuary and the games. It was built in 330 BC by Leonidas of Naxos and then renovated during Roman times.
Across the Leonidaeum, there are ruins of the Theikoleon. A former rectangular building was the official residence of the Theikoloi, the priests of Olympia.
Palestra, the Gymnasium and the Greek Baths
Going further, we found ruins of Palaestra and the Gymnasium.
Once Palaestra was a square building, with an open courtyard and rooms around it. That was a place where athletes trained for wrestling, boxing and jumping. It was built in the 3rd century BC, and it had 72 Doric colonnades.
Beside it, there is Gymnasium, which remains dates back from the 2nd century BC. It was an open area surrounded by stoas, where athletes trained for running and pentathlon.
And close to Palestra, there were the baths, constructed during the 5th century BC.
It is well known that the cult of the body was very important in ancient Greece, and later as well. So after the training or Olympic Games, athletes have to wash and clean their bodies from the dust and oil. In the 2nd century AD, Greek baths were used for the construction of the Kladeos Baths, the luxury complex with hot and cold baths.
The Archaeological Museum in Olympia is one of the most important museums in Greece, reorganized in 2004. I was delighted to see the rich collection of stunning statues and items found during the excavations!
The museum includes twelve galleries set out in chronological order. The collections introduce the history of the great Pan-Hellenic sanctuary from the Late Neolithic to Mycenean times, Early Bronze Age, then Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods.
There are many items of bronze, metal, pottery, various figurines, votive offerings, bronze cauldrons and tripods,
Then, there are helmets, shields, weapons.
And terracotta from buildings looks stunning!
One room is dedicated to the famous Pheidias, where you can see materials and tools from his workshop.
Also, there are clay moulds used to shape the gold plates for the statue of Zeus, and some decorative pieces of the workshop’s roof.
The most important statues in the Olympia museum
Among the terracotta items, there is an interesting terracotta group of Zeus and Ganymede, carrying off the little boy Ganymede to Mount Olympus.
Actually, he snatched a young boy, because the homoerotic connection between an adult man and a youth (and some gods as well) was a part of aristocratic life in ancient Greece.
Nike of Paionions
One of the most important statues is Nike of Paionions, which looks amazing even though it is not complete.
By the way, Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, and once it has wings. This woman statue is 2,11 m high and made in Parian marble by the sculptor Paionions. It was a votive offering to Zeus by the Messenians and Naupaktians for their victory against the Spartans in the Archidameian war around 421 BC.
Hermes of Praxiteles
One more masterpiece is the statue of Hermes of Praxiteles from the 4th century BC, and it is 2,13 m high.
It presents Hermes, the messenger of the gods, holding the Infant Dionysus, on the way to Nymphs, his nurses. This statue is regarded as one of the finest works of art of the Late Classical period.
The room with statues and objects found in the complex of the fountain Nympaion or Exedri, financed by Herod Atticus is also interesting. Marble statues of members of his family and the Antonine dynasty of Roman emperors date between 149 and 153 AD.
In the centre is the marble statue of the bull is life-size donated by his wife Anna Regilia to the sanctuary of Zeus.
In the last rooms are Roman statues and items of the sanctuary’s life, including the finds from the Late Roman cemetery where athletes and sanctuary officials were buried.
Pediments of the temple of Zeus
But definitely, the large central gallery is breathtaking!
It houses the unique marble pediment sculptures of the temple of Zeus.
By the way, the pediment is a triangular gable on the roofs of the temples and buildings, supported by columns.
On the West pediment of the temple of Zeus, there is a scene of battle between Lapiths and Centaurs.
The statue of Apollo is in the centre.
On the opposite side, there is the East pediment with the scene of the preparation for the famous chariot race between King Oinomaos and Pelops. By the way, Pelops was a young man, wished to win the hand of Hippodameia, the king s daughter. In the centre is a statue of Zeus.
This room is the most important part of the museum and it looks fascinating!
Ancient Olympic Games: Let the games begin!
There were various sports competitions in ancient Greece, but the Olympic games were the most popular.
According to tradition, in 776 BC, Iphitos, king of Elis, Kleosthenes of Pisa and Lykourgos of Sparta organized the first Olympic Games in honour of Zeus.
But we can say that the Games had a very important role in political life. Actually, the organization instituted a „sacred truce“. It means that during the Olympic Games, all wars between Greek cities-states were stopped so that athletes and visitors could travel safely from their cities to the games.
Very soon the Games become very popular and they continued when Greece came under Roman rule. But in CE 394, the emperor Theodosius I banned pagan festivals and Olympic Games, as well, after almost twelve centuries of competitions.
Some interesting facts about the ancient Olympic Games:
- Games were taking place every four years, at the second full moon after the summer solstice, which correspondent with August in modern times.
- Even historians measured time by the interval between them – an Olympiad.
- Only free-born Greek men could compete in games, slaves were not allowed.
- All competitors did not wear clothes, ie they were nude, to avoid fraud because women were not allowed to compete or attend competitions.
- In the beginning, the games lasted one day. And only one athletic event was held: a footrace that was about 192 metres long, known as the stade.
- Later, other sports were added such as long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration and equestrian events. Then the Games lasted four days.
- Victors in the games were crowned with a branch of the wild olive tree, that grows near the temple of Zeus. It was the greatest honour for the competitor, and his family and his city, as well.
Women and the Games in Olympia
As I have mentioned before, women were not allowed to watch the games and take part in competitions.
But during the Herean festival, in different years of the Olympic Games, the Women games were held every four years in honour of the goddess Hera. It was only one event, racing, for young girls, not married women. They ran about 160 metres, dressed in a short chiton. And the winners were crowned with a wreath of a wild olive tree.
The Museum of the Olympic Games
The museum exhibition presents the history of the Olympic Games.
Also, there are various items related to the ancient Olympic games, dating back from the 2nd millennium BC to the 5th-century A.C.
So you can see the items of terracotta from the prehistoric, Archaic and Classical period, a collection of bronzes, and a collection of sculptures from the Archaic up to the Roman period.
Modern Olympic games
Many centuries after the ancient Olympic Games, modern Olympic Games were born after the idea of the French baron Pierre de Coubertin. At the conference on international sport held in Paris in June 1894, Coubertin formed the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Two years late, in 1896, the first modern Games were held in Athens, the capital of Greece. There were only 280 male athletes, from 12 countries, competed in 43 events athletic events.
Today Olympic Games are the most popular international sporting event which includes summer and winter sports competitions. They are held every four years with competitors from all over the world. And they are known for the spectacular Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. But that is another story.
How to get to Olympia
Olympia village is located 290 km from Athens in the Attic Penninsula. Also, it is 115 km away from Patras, the largest city and main port in the Peloponnese. So, the fastest and most comfortable way is by car, and the cheapest way is by bus. The closest city to Olympia is Pyrgos, located about 20 km, and west about 35 km from Olympia, there is a small port, called Katakolon. You can catch the bus from these places to get to Olympia, as well, but check the schedule first.
You can visit Olympia any time. But during summer hot days, take a bottle of water with you, a hat, and sun lotion. And wear comfortable shoes, to avoid „archaeological wounds“, as my friend Alexander said, caused by walking on stones among sharp grass 😀
And when you finished your visit to the ancient Olympia, you can walk to the modern village of Olympia. It is about 500 meters from there.
Buy souvenirs in local shops, have a coffee or have lunch in tavernas below the trees in the main street or visit Archimedes Museum.
Well, Olympia is definitely a place worth visiting and a place to remember.
Although the ancient Olympic Games are so far from us, their spirit is still present in the modern age.