Ancient Olympia – the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Peloponnese, Greece

This journey, which brought us to ancient Olympia, began with the first stop at Delphi and the story of the Delphic oracles. Thus, almost 3000 years ago, the predictions of the Delphic oracle prompted King Iphitos of the city-state of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula to hold games in honor of the gods in 776 BC. Aristotle also wrote about these games and today they are considered the first Olympic Games, at the beginning of which the main competitors were from Elis and the neighboring city-state of Pisa.

Maria and Andrey on a walk through the sanctuary of Olympia
Maria and Andrey on a walk through the sanctuary of Olympia

So after Delphi, we headed to Patras, the third largest city in Greece, before reaching Olympia. We drove along the northwestern part of the Peloponnese and to reach the village of Ancient Olympia. Ancient Olympia is a very well kept tourist spot, right next to the ancient sanctuary of Olympia. There are plenty of restaurants, fast food, hotels and souvenir shops. We passed the village it and stopped in a parking lot. From here we walked to the Olympia sanctuary on the rainy day.

Model of the Sanctuary of Olympia in Peloponnese, Greece
Model of the Sanctuary of Olympia in Peloponnese, Greece

Sanctuary of Olympia

The first games in Elis were during a festival in honour of Zeus, the god of thunder, and occurred, as they do today, every four years. After years of instability and wars, in 464 BC the city-state of Elis took control of the region, and in honour of this power they decided to build a large temple to Zeus. The temple was commissioned to the local architect Libon, who began construction of a Doric-style temple in 460 BC.

Today we stand in front of the building, which was definitely majestic, but nowadays we can see only one upright column, and as children leave the Lego blocks behind, huge pieces of the columns of the temple of Zeus are scattered around. A memory of the grandeur of this place.

But even though the temple was the most important place in ancient Olympia, the most remarkable thing was hidden inside it – one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. Do you know what the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are?

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Let’s make a quick detour and dedicate a few words to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This is a list of the most notable sites in antiquity, authored by Antipater of Sidon, who was the head librarian at the Library of Alexandria.

According to this list, the seven wonders are: The Pyramids of Giza (2575 – 2465 BC), Egypt; The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (8th-6th century BC), the area is probably located in present-day Iraq; Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (550 BC) – built on the orders of King Croesus, now in Turkey; Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (353-351 BC) – Tomb of King Mausoleum – the ruler of Caria. Located in Halicarnassus, Bodrum in present-day Turkey; Colossus of Rhodes (292-280 BC) – Massive statue dedicated to god Helios. It was located in the bay of Is. Rhodes; the Lighthouse of Alexandria (280 BC) – The lighthouse was located in Alexandria and was erected by Sostratus of Cnidus and the statue of Zeus Olympian – built by the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias, which was located in Olympia.

An image of what the statue of Olympian Zeus would look like
An image of what the statue of Olympian Zeus would look like

The master sculptor and the statue of Zeus Olympian

Nowadays, only the pyramids have survived from the ancient wonders of the world. The story of the statue of Zeus ends in Constantinople, where it was lost, stolen or destroyed. But beginning in the 5th century BC. Hr. by the Athenian sculptor Phidias. Phidias was a very famous sculptor for his time, born in Athens around 500 AD. Ave. Hr. and created some of the most significant sculptures of those years. The only copy of his sculpture that has survived to this day is of the sculpture of Athena from the Acropolis in the capital of Greece.

The western pediment of the Temple of Zeus, which depicts the battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths in Thessaly, which was won by the Lapiths.
The western pediment of the Temple of Zeus, which depicts the battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths in Thessaly, which was won by the Lapiths.

Influenced by the greatness of the statue in Athens, the people of Elis invited Phidias to make the statue of Zeus in Olympia. Chronologically, the Temple of Zeus was built around 460 BC and the statue of Zeus around 430 BC. According to travelers’ accounts of the time, it was slightly taller than the statue of Athena (12m). Zeus was seated on a throne and gave the impression that if he stood up, his head would break through the roof of the temple. The statue was covered in gold and ivory. The method of working the ivory by Phidias remains a mystery. Presumably he either heated the bone to make it softer and more amenable to working, or soaked it in vinegar or beer before working with it.

The ruins of the temple of Zeus
The ruins of the temple of Zeus

Here I leave a link to a much more detailed article about the statue of Zeus and the temple in National Geographic History, the November-December 2023 issue.

If the temple of Zeus in today’s ruins of ancient Olympia is located at the center of the sanctuary, the studio of Phidias is located just in front of it, on the western side. Today’s ruins are from an early Christian basilica so you can’t draw a concrete conclusion about what the studio looked like, but archaeologists have found many tools and artifacts that speak about how sculptors worked at the time.

What you will see in Olympia

As in contemporary cinema, the story doesn’t follow a straight line. Now I take you back to the beginning. At the ticket booths, where we pay 12 euros per person, which includes admission to ancient Olympia and several museums. In the winter this will cost you only 6 euro. We were welcomed by torrential rain right at the entrance so we stood for some time under umbrellas, looking out at the ruins and hoping it would stop soon. It finally stopped and we followed in the footsteps of the ancient Olympians.

The trail passes by the gymnasium, the place where the ancient Olympians trained. Then you’ll stop in front of the Philippeion, a memorial in honor of Philip of Macedon, built after the Battle of Cheronea, which Philip of Macedon won and with which Hellas bowed down to him.

Next to Philippeion is the temple of Hera, the queen of the Greek gods and wife of Zeus. This temple is older than the temple of Zeus. The altar of Hera is the place where the Olympic flame is lit.

The Olympic flame

If you watch carefully the lighting of the Olympic flame in our modern times, you will see that it is done again on the site of the altar of Hera with the help of mirrors. It is then ritually carried to the stadium in Olympia, where the athletes take it.

Olympia Stadium and the Games

Yes, we made it to the Olympics and the Olympia stadium. In Ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were the most famous of the so-called Panhellenic Games – there were a total of 4 competitions, each held every 4 or 2 years, so that there were Games every year – the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games at Delphi, the Nemean Games at Nemea and the Isthmian Games at Isthmus. In the first 200 years, most athletes competing in the Olympic games were from the cities close to Olympia. This is confirmed by the fact that the winners were from the Peloponnese.

Now we go out to Olympia’s stadium, which could have held 20,000 people. The first discipline of the games was distance running – one stade. I was a bit confused to understand how long one stade is. As far as |i understood, the Olympic stade was 192m (but in Delphi the stadium was about 177m long, so maybe they used a different stade).

At the XIV Olympic Games was introduced the “double stade” Δίαυλος, about 400m. On the following (720 BC) the running of 4.8km or 12.5 stades – Δόλιχος – was introduced. Then comes pentathlon (long jump, javelin throwing, discus throwing, racing and wrestling), boxing (some ancient Greek version), chariot racing (look up Nero scandal too) and so on…

Women and the Olympic Games

The ancient Olympic Games had a rather curious and conservative policy regarding women. Not only were they barred from competitions, but married women were forbidden to even watch them. Even entering the sanctuary grounds on game days could have earned them the death penalty.

Mimi in Olympia
Mimi in Olympia

By contrast, the unmarried were somewhat more privileged. There were special spectator seats for them in the stadium. And every 4 years there were special games in honour of the goddess Hera, in which women (unmarried) competed. These games, however, were at a different time of the year and did not coincide with the Olympic Games. It is not clear whether men were allowed to attend.

It is also not very clear when the games were last held. Supposedly it was during the time of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who banned pagan cults.

The Archaeological Museum of Olympia

I don’t know if one can be prepared with all the historical and mythological facts about Olympia. Even if I go 100 times, I’ll discover something new, and we only had one day, a rainy September day. From Olympia, we headed into another rainy period that day to the Archaeological Museum. A must-see place to enjoy the beautiful statues and frescoes of Olympia.

Perhaps the most important statue is the one found in 1877. “Hermes with the child Dionysus” by the sculptor Praxiteles. Praxiteles, along with Phidias, was one of the best sculptors of the Classical period. This is the only surviving work of him, and the other statues you may see are replicas from Roman times. If you’ve been to the Vatican Museums: the Aphrodite of Knid, or the Louvre: the Artemis.

The story depicted on the statue is Hermes, to whom Zeus entrusted the little Dionysus, holding something shiny to which the child reaches out. What the extremely complicated Greek mythology says about this: Zeus, as usual, fell in love, this time with Sela, child of the Theban king Cadmus and Harmonia. But seduced by Hera, she demanded to see Zeus in all his majesty and the sight killed her. At that time she was pregnant with Dionysus. Dionysus was sent with Hermes to the nymphs in Crete. The baby began to cry and to calm him down, Hermes showed him a shiny object.

"Hermes with the child Dionysus" by the sculptor Praxiteles
“Hermes with the child Dionysus” by the sculptor Praxiteles

You can’t miss the statue of Nike by Peony. It is dedicated to the winged goddess of victory Nike and dates from around 421 BC. Hr. Both statues are made of Paros marble, which is from the island of Paros and was highly prized by ancient Greek sculptors.

Paros marble is also the material of two other famous statues: Nike from the island of Samothrace and Venus of Milos (from the island of Milos)

Greece and its sacred places

If you are a fan of this type of cultural tourism, there are some extremely important places to visit in Greece. The sanctuary of Olympia, about which we told above. The ancient sanctuary of Delphi. The remains of an ancient sanctuary on the island of Delos near Mykonos, where according to mythology the twin gods Artemis and Apollo were born. Delos can be reached by cruise, but we were unable to visit because we were warned it was a difficult tour with a 4 year old. We also recommend the Acropolis of Athens.

Where to stay?

In our research, we couldn’t find anything we liked between Patras and Ancient Olympia. Ancient Olympia has hotels and numerous restaurants, the place is nice, and will give you the opportunity to tour everything. And Patras is a great city with a nice nightlife and lots of nice restaurants and bars, but it’s a 2 hour drive from Olympia.

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