History and Major Facts about Olympia, Greece
Olympia, known as “Archaia Olympia” in Greek, is a small town located in the region of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece.
The site is renowned for its historical significance due to the nearby archaeological site, also named Olympia.
Below, WHE explore its rich history and key facts:
Olympia is situated in the valley of the Alfeiós River in the western region of the Peloponnese, approximately 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the Gulf of Kyparissia, along the Ionian Sea.
Importance of Olympia in ancient times
This archaeological site was a prominent Panhellenic religious sanctuary in ancient Greece. It gained particular fame as the venue for the ancient Olympic Games, which took place every four years during Classical antiquity, starting from the 8th century BC and continuing until the 4th century AD.
The ancient Olympic Games held at Olympia were not just a sporting event but also a cultural and religious phenomenon.
The sacred precinct of Altis
The sacred precinct known as the Altis at Olympia was primarily dedicated to the worship of Zeus, the chief deity of the ancient Greek pantheon. While Zeus was the principal focus of devotion, other gods were also revered within this sacred space.
The games held in honor of Zeus at Olympia, known as the Olympic Games, attracted participants and spectators from various city-states and regions across ancient Greece. These games, along with similar events held at other “Panhellenic” centers, played a significant role in fostering a sense of shared identity among the ancient Greeks, contributing to the concept of the Greeks as a united nation.
Olympia versus Mount Olympus
It’s important to note that despite the name “Olympia,” this sacred site is not located near Mount Olympus in northern Greece. Mount Olympus was believed to be the dwelling place of the Twelve Olympian gods, the principal deities of ancient Greek religion.
The association between Olympia and the Olympic Games with Mount Olympus is more symbolic and cultural, emphasizing the importance of these games in the Greek world without necessarily implying a geographical proximity to the mythological abode of the gods.
The competition for Altis
According to ancient accounts, the village of Pisa and other nearby villages in the region contended with Olympia for control and management of the sacred precinct Altis.
Ultimately, Olympia emerged as the victor in this competition, suggesting that the village itself was distinct from the sacred precinct. The modern village of Olympia, which has been continuously inhabited since ancient times, is believed to be the putative location of the ancient village.
The Altis at Olympia was a quadrangular area with irregular dimensions, spanning more than 183 meters (approximately 200 yards) on each side. It was enclosed by walls, except on its northern side, where it was naturally bounded by Mount Kronos, also known as the Kronion. Within the Altis, various significant structures were arranged, including:
- The Temple of Hera (Heraion or Heraeum): This temple was dedicated to Hera, the queen of the Greek gods. It stood as one of the key buildings within the Altis.
- The Temple of Zeus: Another prominent structure, the Temple of Zeus was dedicated to the chief of the Greek gods, Zeus. It was renowned for housing the monumental chryselephantine statue of Zeus created by the sculptor Pheidias.
- The Pelopion: This area was associated with the legendary king Pelops and held special significance in the sanctuary.
- Open Spaces: The Altis also included open areas used for various traditional activities, with one of the notable sites being the great altar of Zeus. This altar was where some of the largest sacrifices took place during ancient ceremonies and festivals.
Did you know…?
The name “Altis” in the context of the ancient sanctuary of Olympia is derived from a word in the Elean dialect, the language spoken by the people of Elis, the region where Olympia is located. This word meant “the grove” or “the sacred grove.” The name is aptly chosen because the area around Olympia was indeed a wooded and lush landscape, with various types of trees, including olive and plane trees.
Importance of Olympia as an archeological site
The archaeological site of Olympia is of great historical significance and contains over 755 significant buildings, with many of their ruins still visible today. Among the notable features is the Pelopion, a tomb associated with a quasi-mythical king believed to be an ancestor of the Atreids, two legendary Greek kings associated with the Trojan War. The existence of this tomb suggests that there may be a basis in reality for the myths surrounding this king.
The Stadium at Olympia
Another prominent feature is the stadium, a field with marked start and end lines separated by transverse curbing. Athletes entered the stadium through a vaulted corridor at the start, and spectators mainly sat on the sloping sides of the field.
The length of this stadium field became the standard for the ancient Greek unit of distance known as the stadion, which is referenced in ancient geographical works. The stadium has been preserved for modern Olympic use without significant alterations to its ancient topography, and temporary stands can be easily erected and removed for events.
The first major games held at the Olympia stadium are said to have begun in the 720s BC as part of the festival of Zeus at Olympia. While Olympia was a sacred sanctuary, it fell within the independent state of Elis, and the Eleans managed the games, leading to occasional biases in their administration. The famous Olympic truce, which ensured safe passage for visitors, did not necessarily halt all wars in Greece or even within the vicinity of Olympia.
Famous temples in Olympia
According to the ancient travel writer Pausanias, the archaeological site of Olympia once housed more than 70 temples along with various other structures, including treasuries, altars, statues, and more, all dedicated to a wide array of deities. Among these temples, the most renowned were the Temple of Hera and the Temple of Zeus.
Statue of Zeus
Olympia gained fame for its colossal chryselephantine statue of Zeus, crafted from ivory and gold over a wooden framework, prominently displayed in his temple.
This masterpiece, sculpted by Pheidias, achieved recognition as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as bestowed by Antipater of Sidon. In close proximity to the Temple of Zeus, home to this iconic statue, archaeologists unearthed Pheidias’ workshop during the 1950s. The presence of sculptor’s tools and related artifacts discovered within the workshop supports the attribution. The ancient ruins of Olympia are located to the north of the Alpheios River, with Mount Kronos, named after the Greek deity Kronos, situated to the south. To the west, the Kladeos, a tributary of the Alpheios River, forms a natural boundary.
Other notable structures in the sanctuary
In the vicinity of the sanctuary at Olympia, several significant structures can be identified:
- To the north, you’ll find the Prytaneion, the Philippeion, and a collection of treasuries that represent various city-states. The Prytaneion and the Phlippeion structures were built around 470 BC and 300 BC, respectively.
- To the south of these treasuries stands the Metroon.
- To the east of the Metroon, you’ll come across the Echo Stoa.
- Further east, you’ll encounter the hippodrome and, later, the stadium.
- Moving south from the sanctuary, you’ll encounter the South Stoa and the bouleuterion (council chamber).
- To the west are the palaestra (ancient gymnasium), the workshop of Pheidias (the famous sculptor), the gymnasion (training facility), and the Leonidaion (guesthouse or hostel).
Olympia had been abandoned and buried by the 6th century AD due to repeated floods and earthquakes. Over time, its location became forgotten. The site’s memory lingered in historical records and literature, particularly in the works of ancient historians like Pausanias, who described Olympia in his “Description of Greece.”
During the Ottoman rule of Greece, travelers and scholars attempted to locate ancient sites, including Olympia. Some travelers provided descriptions and sketches of the area, which contributed to the eventual rediscovery.
The early efforts to uncover Olympia began in the 18th century. In 1766, the English architect Richard Chandler visited the region and identified the site based on Pausanias’ descriptions. However, his findings did not lead to major excavations.
The most significant excavations at Olympia were initiated by German archaeologists in the 19th century. In 1829, a French team conducted some preliminary investigations, but the major work was carried out by Germans, particularly Ernst Curtius and Friedrich Adler, in the 1870s and 1880s.
Those excavations led to the discovery of numerous ancient structures, including temples, altars, statues, and the famous workshop of the sculptor Pheidias. The iconic statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (Hermes of Praxiteles) was also found.
To preserve and display the unearthed artifacts, an Archaeological Museum of Olympia was established. It houses many of the valuable items discovered during the excavations.
Excavations at Olympia have continued into the modern era, conducted by Greek and international teams. New discoveries and ongoing research provide deeper insights into the history and significance of the site.
How is Olympia like today?
The modern village of Olympia provides services and amenities for visitors to the adjacent archaeological site, which lies to the southeast of the village. The Kladeos River forms the western border of the site, and visitors typically cross a bridge to reach the main gate.
Exploring the entire site involves extensive walking, and ongoing excavations are frequently conducted. Many moveable artifacts found at the site are housed in one of the three museums associated with Olympia, including the Archeological Museum of Olympia, preserving these historical treasures for future generations.
Also, Olympia railway station is situated in the town of Olympia, Elis, Western Greece. It was established in 1891 by the Pyrgos-Katakolo Railway Company and is currently operated by TrainOSE.
Most Notable Facts about Olympia
- Olympia was the site of the ancient Olympic Games, one of the most prestigious athletic and cultural events in ancient Greece. These games were held regularly, every four years, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. The modern Olympic Games, which began in 1896, draw inspiration from these ancient competitions.
- The archaeological site of Olympia is of great historical importance. It was a major Panhellenic religious sanctuary dedicated primarily to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. The site contains numerous ruins, including temples, altars, and athletic facilities like the stadium and gymnasium.
- Olympia is situated within the Peloponnese region of Greece, near the western coast of the peninsula. It is not to be confused with Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Twelve Olympian gods, which is located in northern Greece.
- The modern village of Olympia serves as the gateway for tourists visiting the archaeological site. Visitors can explore the ruins, learn about the history of the ancient Olympic Games, and visit museums showcasing artifacts from the site.
- The Kladeos River runs along the western border of the archaeological site, adding to the scenic beauty of the area.
- Olympia is the place where the Olympic flame is traditionally lit using a parabolic mirror, using sunlight, as part of the modern Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. The flame is then carried to the host city of the Olympic Games.
- UNESCO World Heritage Site: The archaeological site of Olympia, along with its historical significance, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its cultural importance to humanity.
Olympia during the Classical Period
During the golden age of Olympia in the classical period (5th to 4th centuries BC), the site experienced significant development. New religious and secular buildings, as well as various structures, were constructed. Key developments during this period include:
- Temple of Zeus: This impressive temple was built in the mid-5th century BC. It was renowned for its size, scale, and intricate ornaments, surpassing anything previously built at the site.
- Greek Baths: New sporting facilities, such as the Greek Baths, were added to accommodate the needs of athletes and visitors. Additionally, the final version of the stadium and the hippodrome for chariot racing were constructed.
- Prytaneion: The Prytaneion, a significant building, was erected on the northwest side of the site in 470 BC. It likely served as a central administrative and ceremonial hub.
- Late Classical Additions: In the late classical period, further structures enriched the site. The Metroon, located near the Treasuries, was built around 400 BC. The Echo Stoa, constructed around 350 BC, served to separate the sanctuary from the area dedicated to games and the stadium. Additionally, the South Stoa was established at the southern edge of the sanctuary during this time.
In the late 4th century BC, the Philippeion was constructed at Olympia. Around 300 BC, the Leonidaion, the largest building of its time, was built to host significant guests. As the importance of the games increased, more athletic facilities emerged, such as the Palaestra in the 3rd century BC, the Gymnasion in the 2nd century BC, and bathhouses around 300 BC. In 200 BC, an arched gateway connected the stadium’s entrance to the sanctuary.
During the Roman era, the Olympic Games were open to all citizens of the Roman Empire, leading to extensive construction and repairs, including the Temple of Zeus, in 150 AD. New baths replaced the Greek ones in 100 AD, and an aqueduct was built in 160 AD.
In the 3rd century, the site endured significant damage from earthquakes. In 267 AD, invading tribes fortified the central area using materials from the monuments. Despite this, the Olympic festival continued until 393 AD, when Emperor Theodosius I banned it. Around 426 AD, during Theodosius II’s anti-pagan measures, the Temple of Zeus was destroyed. Pheidias’ workshop became a Basilica, and the site was inhabited by a Christian community.
Archaeological evidence suggests that small-scale Olympic events (possibly in a Christian context) persisted secretly until the mid-6th century, when floods and earthquakes led to abandonment in the early 7th century.
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