Olympia, located in a valley in the Peloponnese peninsula, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. As the name suggests, ancient Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which stand today as the world’s biggest sporting event. In addition to this, it also housed a large ancient Greek Sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and other Olympian gods, the ruins of which you can see today. Due to this, Olympia was an important pilgrimage centre for the ancient Greeks.
The village of Olympia is located just 500m away from the sanctuary and is filled with souvenir shops and eateries.
It is believed that the site has been occupied since the prehistoric times, around 1500 BC but there are no existing structures from that era. In 776 BC, the first Olympic Games were held here and continued to do so once every four years. The first buildings were constructed around 600 BC which included several temples, stadiums and tracks. The classical period of Greek history (5th-4th century BC) was the golden era for Olympia and this was when major structures like the Temple of Zeus were built. The golden era came to an end in the 3rd century BC when multiple earthquakes affected the site. In spite of this, the games were continued till they were banned by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I in 393 AD. Following this, Theodosius II had instructed that the site be destroyed, and as a result of this, we can see only a handful of ruins today.
After you enter the site, you will first find the ruins of the gymnasium on the right. It dates back to the 2nd-century BC and was where the athletes trained for the games. On your left, you will find the ruins of Roman baths which were constructed during the first century AD and the Prytaneion, a building where officials met regarding matters of the games and where the winners were celebrated.
Walking further along the path, you will find the columns of the Palaestra, which were an extension of the gymnasium. It was built in the 3rd century BC and athletes trained here for wrestling, boxing and jumping. Next comes the workshop of Pheidias, a renowned sculptor of ancient Greece. After this is the Leonidaion from the 3rd century BC, which is the site’s largest building and acted as the lodging for the dignitaries and athletes who took part in the games.
Opposite to all these buildings that you crossed, you will find the Altis, which is the sanctuary of Zeus, the chief Olympian God. The Altis was dominated by the colossal 5th century BC Temple of Zeus, which displayed classical Doric Greek architecture. The temple housed the remarkable Statue of Zeus, a 41 feet tall structure in gold and ivory and a creation of the master sculptor, Pheidias. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world which was later destroyed by the Byzantines.
Located near the entrance to the temple, you will find the base for the statue of Nike, the Goddess of Victory. The statue itself is housed in the museum nearby.
The Bouleuterion or Council House, located south of the temple, was where the participants of the games took the solemn oath to abide by the rules and not engage in foul play.
Next to the temple is the Pelopion which is said to be the tomb of a mythical figure, Pelops. It is a pentagonal structure which was also used as an altar for animal sacrifices for the Gods.
Next to the Pelopion is the Temple of Hera, where the Olympic Flame was lit before the games. It is also the oldest temple on the site and dates back to the 7th century BC. Even in current times, before every Modern Olympic Games, the flame is continued to be lit here and is then transported by a torch to whichever country hosts the games.
Located behind the temple, is the Philippeion, which is the only circular structure on the site. It was built as a memorial structure by Philip of Macedon with statues of his family, including his son, Alexander the Great.
North of the Altis, are a series of treasuries and on the east is the echo stoa, a columned walkway. Between these two perpendicular structures, is an arched pathway which will lead you to the stadium.
The stadium contains a track that is almost 200 metres long and more than 30 metres wide. It could house around 45,000 spectators and only males were allowed to be seated in the stadium. Women and slaves watched the games from the nearby Kronos Hill. In the 2004 Athens Olympics, the stadium was used as the venue for shot put, thus regaining a part of its ancient glory.
The museum is located near the archaeological site and a visit here will help you get a clearer picture of the ruins and the history of Olympia. Several ceramics, ritual items, structures from the temples, remains of statues and multiple bronze artefacts are on display, which reflects the skilled craftsmanship of the ancient times.
The imposing marble statue of God Hermes with baby Dionysus from the 4th century and the remarkable statue of Nike are the major highlights of the museum.
Olympia is where the Olympic Games began and was one of the major holy sanctuaries in ancient Greece. These two factors make Olympia an important archaeological site in Greece, with its rich collection of ruins that date back thousands of years ago. On visiting the site, one can imagine the sheer magnificence of ancient Greece and the glory of the Olympic Games.
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