There are a number of routes you can take in order to visit the ancient home of the modern Olympic Games in Olympia Greece. One efficient way is to find yourself on a cruise ship from Venice to Athens that just happens to take you down the west coast of Greece and stops in at the port of Katakolon which is only 40 kilometres away from Olympia. If you are not interested in organising yourself such a cruise, getting to Olympia is a little more difficult. Organising a bus tour out of Athens is one way of doing this. Hiring a car is a another way to travel to the west coast and that would mean you could take in some of the other famous historical sites of the Pelopponese. Whatever way you get to Olympia, you will be rewarded with strolling amongst the rich cultural heritage of over 3000 years that has inspired the most significant and regular world event in the modern world that celebrates that rarity, universal peace and goodwill, as well as damn fine sporting events.
The sanctuary at Olympia is a large and complex site that shows all the signs of the damage that three millennia and many changes of religious belief and social organisation can bring to a community. Like all the other archaeological sites in Greece, a lot of work has been done at Olympia in excavating and restoring as much as possible to enable the visitor to understand what happened long ago at this famous place. This article presents a simplified route around the site (in purple dashes) and provides some basic background information on the 7 specific structures that will be highlighted here.
As you enter the Sanctuary of Olympia, you pass a long line of exposed columns that are the remnants of the original Gymnasium. The term ‘gymnasium’ comes from the Greek word ‘gymnos’ which means ‘naked’. This building was for those men (no women were allowed) who trained naked for the naked athletic games of Olympia. Apparently the nakedness was meant to be a tribute to the Gods who I suppose didn’t themselves need clothes.
The next set of remains marked by extensive rows of columns is the site of a connected building to the Gymnasium, the Palaestra. This building was a large covered building (4345 metres square) for the use of the wrestlers and other athletes as part of their preparation for the games. It was built towards the end of the third century BCE, precisely aligned with the cardinal points of the compass.
It was a square building with a large courtyard in the centre which no doubt was used for the actual wrestling and boxing training. The rooms that surrounded the courtyard would have no doubt been rooms for changing, preparation for events and perhaps club rooms for meeting up with friends and other competitors. This facility would have had many things in common with modern, high-level gym facilities.
Despite the first two facilities being very utilitarian places for preparation for the four yearly games in honour of Zeus, the next site we visit shows the many uses of this Panhellenic sanctuary of the Gods. It is called the ‘Philippeon’ and was a circular monument (a ‘Tholos’) made with Ionic columns to honour Philip II of Macedon ( 382–336 BC) and his family members including Alexander the Great. It was created to celebrate Philip’s victory at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE) which resulted in his defeat of Athens and other central Greek city-states and basically ensured that this Macedonian King controlled all of Greece, including Olympia. It is the only monument in the sanctuary dedicated to human beings.
The statues of the royal Macedonian family in the Philippeion were made from marble and gold which were the same materials that Phaedias used to construct his awe-inspiring statue of Zeus in the nearby Temple of Zeus. The statues did not survive the next two milennia but their plinths did. The statues included Philip II and his wife Olympias, Philip’s Parents and his son Alexander. The reconstructions below show the inner chamber where the statues were placed; you had to go inside to view them. The King of Macedon appears to be making clear to the visitors and athletes attending the Olympic games where real power lay in the city states of Greece. Unfortunately Philip II was assassinated around about the same time as his Philippeion was being finished so he would not have been able to check out the monument to himself that he had ordered.
The Temple of Hera
Hera is the Queen of the Greek gods and her temple is the oldest at Olympia having been built around 590 BCE. It was originally a shared temple with Zeus but he eventually got promoted to his own temple just across the way. It is considered the most venerable of all the structures at Olympia and its altar is where the Olympic flame is lit and carried out to the rest of the nations of the world.
It has been noted that the marble pillars of the Temple of Hera all seem to be of different design. One theory suggests that this is because the original pillars were wooden and were replaced at different times and in different styles.
The Temple of Hera was destroyed by earthquake during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century CE. The temple was not only used to contain the statue of the Goddess but it was also used to store valuables and works of art that had been donated as votive offerings to the Goddess. We know what many of these items were as we have an account of them by the Hellenic traveller and geographer Pausanias from the 2nd century CE. One of the statues in the temple he describes in his ‘travel diary’ as follows… “including a marble Hermes carrying the baby Dionysos, a work of Praxiteles”. The Temple of Hera was excavated in the 1870s CE and the diggers ‘found the head, torso, legs, left arm of a statue of a young man resting against a tree trunk covered by a mantle’ (Wikipedia). This statue returned, like so many of the other masterpieces of Ancient Greece, to the modern world thanks to a devastating earthquake. Hermes stands on proud display in the Museum of Olympia, waiting for you to visit at the end of your tour of the sanctuary.
The Workshop of Phidias
It was Philip II’s son Alexander that went on to conquer the world and in many ways create the first tourist industry in the world that perhaps was based on conquering your close neighbours and then letting bygones be bygones and spending your holidays visiting their top spots. During the Hellenistic period after Alexander’s early demise, Greek travellers were able to visit the wonders of Egypt and the famous sites of Asia Minor and so the first lists of the wonders of the ancient world were developed. Only one of the seven on the agreed list, the Great Pyramid, still stands today. The Mausoleum of Helicarnassus lasted until the early middle ages and the remnants of it can be seen in the British Museum today. There is doubt that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon even existed. There are no traces left of Colossus of Rhodes or the Lighthouse of Alexandria (perhaps parts of the lighthouse may still survive under the sea?) and a visit to the site of the Temple of Artemis has little to show that is left of this wonder of the ancient world. We should consider ourselves lucky then that we can still visit the site of the Temple of Zeus with its one last pillar still standing. There is of course nothing left of the Statue of Zeus, its certain destruction having generated many different stories as to its ultimate fate.
Phidias, the friend of Pericles, not only worked on many of the sculptures on the Acropolis in Athens, he also worked here in Olympia for 13 years (470-457), working on the gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Its fame spread around the known world of the time and its reputation has come down to 21st century visitors. What has been revealed for contemporary visitors is the discoveries of German Archaeologists from the 1950s who excavated the site of Phidias’s workshop. They discovered large numbers of terracotta moulds used to develop the folds of the statue’s robes as well as tools and other leftovers from the workshop. Most amazingly was found a wine cup inscribed with ‘I am Pheidias’. Most of these finds can be seen in the Museum of the site (See images of moulds below.)
Sometime between 435-451 CE a Christian basilica was built over the ruins of the workshop as per the image on the right.
TEMPLE OF ZEUS
From Phidias’s workshop, it is a short walk to the remnants of the Temple of Zeus. Only the floor, one upright column and lots of scattered pieces of columns are what is left after the ravages of earthquakes, time and neglect have done their job. there is little to suggest that this was where the fourth wonder of the ancient world stood, the great statue of Zeus.
The temple was built over ten years from 466-456 BCE and appears to suggest that Zeus had become the main God of Olympus, pushing his wife and consort, the goddess of marriage and family into second place. Zeus’s temple was 14 metres longer than Hera’s.
After inspecting the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, it is a good idea to then look forward to your visit to the Museum at the end of your wander through the sanctuary. Although great destruction has happened to the Olympia site over the centuries, the excavations of this temple, which began in 1875, have revealed a great deal of detail that was left behind after its collapse. For example we don’t need the words of contemporaries to describe what was on the east pediment of the temple. The surviving pieces of the statues tell the story of a chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops and these remnants are set up in the museum as per the image below.
One of the other elements of the Temple of Zeus that wasn’t removed over the millennia from the site were the many gargoyles (around 100) in the form of lion-heads that drained the water from the roof (see left).
Another surviving element of the building were the pieces of the metopes that told the story of the labours of Hercules as they ran along the east and west facades of the temple. These sculptures have been severely damaged but there is enough detail left to recognise the stories they were telling. The photo from the museum here is of Hercules capturing the Cretan Bull.
The excavations of Olympia also brought to the surface again statues that were gifted to the temple as votive offerings to Zeus and ended-up under and around the ruins of the temple. One example that is given prominence in the museum is that of the clay statue on the left of Zeus carrying Ganymede to immortality.
The main attraction for visitors to Olympia, particularly children, is to find the stadium and pretend that they have made it to the real Olympic Games. Photos of ageing fathers racing young children along the stadium at Olympia are prized family possessions.
Today’s stadium was the third stadium constructed by the ancient Greeks to cater for the Olympic Games. You reach the excavated stadium through the vaulted entry way that can be seen in the image above.
The first stadium was built in the middle of the sixth century BCE by levelling an area inside the sanctuary near the Altar of Zeus. The next phase of the stadium involved creating the long 3m high embankment for the spectators. The final form of the Stadium arrived with the construction of the Temple of Zeus. By then the Olympic Games had become very popular and large numbers of visitors and athletes arrived for the spectacle. By the fourth century BCE, the Stadium area had became distinctly separate from the sanctuary, clearly losing a lot of its religious associations.
While the German excavations in the 19th century had started to uncover parts of the ancient track area, the whole site of the stadium was uncovered during the 1950s. In the 2004 Olympic Games, the shot-put events were held at their ancestral home here in Olympia.