In a beautiful valley at the confluence of the Alpheios and the Kladeos rivers, in western Peloponnese, lies the most celebrated sanctuary of ancient Greece. Dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods, it sprawls over the southwest foot of Mount Kronios, in a lush, green landscape. Although secluded, Olympia became the most important religious and athletic center in ancient Greece. Olympia can be reached both by car and by sea, since most cruise ships approach the small port of Katakolon in western Peloponnese as the closest point to the area.
Olympia's fame stems from the Olympic Games, the greatest and most prestigious cultural and athletic festival of its time, which was held every four years to honor Zeus. The origin of the cult and of the festival went back many centuries. The stadium where the ancient Olympic Games were held, and the temple of Zeus, the largest temple in the Peloponnese, are two main attractions of the site.
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The earliest finds in Olympia are located on the southern foot of Mt. Kronios, where the first sanctuaries and prehistoric cults were established. A large number of pottery fragments of the Final Neolithic period (4th millennium BC) were found on the north bank of the stadium. Traces of life during the three periods of the Bronze Age were identified in the greater area of the Altis and new museum. A great burial tumulus of the Early Helladic II period (2800-2300 BC) was discovered in the lower strata of the Pelopion, while several apsidal structures belong to the Early Helladic III period (2150-2000 BC). It is believed that at approximately 1200 BC the region of Olympia was settled by Aetolians under the leadership of Oxylos, who founded the state of Elis.
The first planned sanctuary dedicated to local and Pan-Hellenic deities was probably established towards the end of the Mycenaean period. The Altis, the sacred enclosure with its shady oaks, planes, pines, poplars and olive-trees, was first formed during the 10th and 9th centuries BC, when the cult of Zeus was probably established.
Olympia was subsequently devoted exclusively to worship and for many centuries had no other structures except for the Altis, a walled precinct containing sacrificial altars and the tumulus of the Pelopion. The numerous votive offerings, mostly figurines, bronze cauldrons and tripods were placed outdoors, on trees and altars.
The first figurines representing Zeus, the master of the sanctuary, date to the Geometric period. In 776 BC, Iphitos, king of Elis, Kleosthenes of Pisa and Lykourgos of Sparta organized the Olympic Games in honor of Zeus and instituted the sacred ekecheiria, or truce. Soon, the quadrennial festival acquired a national character.
The great development of the sanctuary began in the Archaic period as shown by the thousands of votive offerings - weapons, figurines, cauldrons etc - dating from this period. This is when the first monumental buildings were constructed - the temple of Hera, the Prytaneion, the Bouleuterion, the treasuries and the first stadium.
The sanctuary continued to flourish into the Classical period, when the enormous temple of Zeus (470-456 BC) and several other buildings (baths, stoas, treasuries, ancillary buildings) were erected, and the stadium moved to the east of its Archaic predecessors, outside the Altis. The countless statues and precious offerings of this period were unfortunately lost, as the sanctuary was pillaged several times in antiquity and especially under Roman rule.
In the Hellenistic period the construction of lay buildings, such as the gymnasium and palaestra, continued, while in Roman times several existing buildings were refurbished and new ones built, including hot baths, luxurious mansions and an aqueduct. Many of the sanctuary's treasures were removed and used for the decoration of Roman villas. The sanctuary continued to function during the first years of Christian rule under Constantine the Great. The last Olympic Games were held in 393 AD, before an edict of Byzantine Theodosius I prohibited all "pagan" festivals. In 426 BC Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the sanctuary. In the mid-fifth century AD a small settlement developed over the ancient ruins and the Workshop of Pheidias was transformed into a Christian church. In 522 and 551 the ruins were devastated anew, this time by by earthquakes, the Temple of Zeus being partially buried. In subsequent centuries the Alpheios and the Kladeos overflowed and along with landslides from Mount Kronios buried the site deep in mud and sand. Olympia remained forgotten under a layer of debris 5-7 meters deep. The area was dubbed Antilalos and it is not until 1766 that the ancient sanctuary was discovered. In 1829 the French Scientific Expedition of the Peloponnese partially excavated the Temple of Zeus, taking several fragments of the pediments to the Louvre Museum. Systematic excavation began by the German Archaeological Institute in 1875 and continues to the present. During this last decade Prof. U. Sinn and his team researched the southwest building, while Dr. H. Kyrieleis and his team excavated the Prehistoric buildings of the sanctuary. Several monuments are under conservation and restoration.
The ancient site of Olympia.
The archaeological site of Olympia includes the sanctuary of Zeus and the many buildings erected around it, such as athletic premises used for the preparation and celebration of the Olympic Games, administrative buildings and other lay buildings and monuments. The Altis, the sacred enclosure and core of the sanctuary, with its temples, cult buildings and treasuries, occupies the center of the site. It is surrounded by a peribolos, or enclosure wall, which in the late 4th c. BC had three gates on its west side and two on the south, and is bordered on the east by the Echo Stoa, which separates the sacred precinct from the stadium. The enclosure wall was extended in Roman times and two monumental entrances were created on its west side.
Hypothetical rendering of ancient Olympia.
The Classical Temple of Zeus and the earlier Temple of Hera dominate the Altis. East of the Heraion is the Metroon, a temple dedicated to Cybele, the mother of the gods, and behind this, on the foot of Mt. Kronios, a row of treasuries dedicated by Greek cities and colonies. To their west lies the Nymphaion, a splendid fountain dedicated by Herodes Atticus. South of the Heraion and over the remains of the prehistoric settlement of Olympia is the Pelopion, a funerary monument commemorating the hero Pelops. Also within the Altis are the Prytaneion, the seat of the sanctuary officials, and the Philippeion, an elegant circular building dedicated by Philip II, king of Macedon. Southeast of the Heraion was the great altar of Zeus, a most important monument entirely made of ashes and therefore now completely lost. The remaining space inside the Altis was filled with numerous altars and statues of gods, heroes and Olympic winners dedicated by Greek cities or wealthy individuals, such as the Nike of Paionios. Outside the sacred precinct of the Altis, to its south, are the Bouleutherion and the South Stoa, the southernmost building of the greater sanctuary and its main entrance from the south. West of the Altis, and separated from it by the Sacred Road, is a series of buildings for the sanctuary personnel, the athletes and the distinguished visitors: the gymnasium and palaestra, exercise grounds, the Workshop of Pheidias which in Late Antiquity was transformed into a Christian church, the Greek baths with their swimming pool, the Roman Baths, the Theokoleion or priests' residence, the Leonidaion or officials' quarters, and the Roman hostels. East of the Altis lies the stadium where the Olympic Games were held. South of the stadium was the hippodrome, of which no trace remains as it was swept away by the Alpheios river. South of the hippodrome is a group of mansions and baths, including the famous House of Nero, built by the emperor for his stay at Olympia during his participation in the games.
Ceremony for the light of Olympic Games.
History of the (ancient) Olympic Games Museum Children’s activities and tours are heavily supported in this very interesting museum. Apart from the interactive applications and games for children about the ancient Olympic Games and the sports, all visitors can enjoy virtual tours to the ancient Olympic Games. Furthermore, visitors can view a collection of terracotta artefacts, a collection of bronzes, a collection of sculptures (Archaic up to the Roman periods), and most of all a great collection from the ancient Olympic Games.
The archaeological site of ancient Olympia.
Museum of the Modern Olympic Games This small museum off of the main street in Olympia city, hosts a bunch of artifacts from the modern Olympics, including the silk-lined box in which they transported Pierre de Coubertin's (1863-1937), the French father of the reborn modern Olympic Games, heart to be buried in Olympia in 1939. Lots of photos and documents from the revival period and a nice summary of each host city for all summer and some of winter games.
Exhibits at the Olympia Museum.
Archaeological Museum of Olympia Within a few minutes walk from the archaeological site lies the Archaeological Museum, It was founded in the 19th c. to house the finds that the excavations in Olympia constantly brought to light. However, as a growing wealth of artifacts kept accumulating, even after a century-long archaeological research, and due to the high seismic activity in the area, it became apparent that the elegant 19th-c. building would not suffice. The new museum of Olympia was completed in 1975 and since then it underwent a major reorganization of its exhibition areas in 2004, in view of the Olympic Games held in Athens. Today, the museum's permanent collections cross 12 halls and over 3,500 years of history, from around the 3rd millennium BC when humans first settled in Olympia to the twilight of Zeus' sanctuary in the 7th c. AD. Renowned for its sculptures and for its collection of ancient Greek bronzes, which is the richest in the world, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia is an important Greek museum.