Olympia was one of the most important sanctuaries of ancient Greece and the birthplace of the Olympic Games. It is where the Olympic flame has been lit before being taken to where the games are held in modern times. Today, only ruins remain but it is still possible to see the main buildings. The temple of Zeus, built in 470 BC, contained a twelve-meter high gold and ivory statue of Zeus, which was one of the 12 wonders of the ancient world. The site has a museum containing many statues and artefacts found at the site, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989.
Olympia was one of the most important sanctuaries of ancient Greece although it is known as the birthplace of the Olympic Games. There are a number of different versions as to how the Olympic Games began. One puts it down as the place where Zeus overcame his father Cronus and seized the throne. It thus became a sacred place to Zeus, and he created the games to celebrate his victory. The first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 BCE although they may have started earlier. At that time there was just one event, a foot race over a stade, a distance of 180 metres.
From 472 BCE the games were held over five days instead of the original one as new events such as boxing, pentathlon (long jump, discus, sprint, javelin, and wrestling), horse and chariot racing and the Pancrateon (a freestyle fighting) as well as additional track events had been introduced. During the time of the games, all hostilities would cease, and great honour was attached to winning. The games were ended in 394 AD by the Roman Emperor Theodosius as they were seen as being Pagan. They were reinstated in 1896 in Athens with the Olympic flame being lit at the Altar of Hera, in from of her Temple, the Heraion.
The Temple of Hera (or Heraion) is the oldest of the structures at Olympia and the earliest monumental temple in Greece.
With sixteen columns on either side and six front and back. Built originally in the mid-7th century BCE with wooden columns it underwent a restoration about 600 BCE when the wooden columns were replaced in stone.
The alter of Hera is where, since 1936, the Olympic flame has been rekindled using a parabolic mirror. The flame has been lit and the torch relay has taken the Olympic torch to the site of the current Olympic games to wherever in the world the Olympics are being held.
At the side of the temple is the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus, which was constructed in the 2nd century AD. This is an ornamental fountain and water supply system providing water from the nearby mountains.
It consisted of a curved wall and a number of basins. It also contained a number of columns and niches organised on two levels containing statues.
Within the fountain was a statue of a bull which can be seen in the site museum.
On the other side of the Heraion is the circular Tholos called the Philippieion, this was begun in 338 BCE by Philip II of Macedonia. He died in 336 BCE before it was finished so it was completed by his son, Alexander III (the Great).
The Philippeion, the only circular building inside the Altis, (which is the name of the sacred precinct in Olympia), is one of the finest examples of ancient Greek architecture.
It consisted of eighteen Ionic columns standing on a three-stepped marble base and supporting a stone entablature. The roof had marble tiles and a bronze flower on the top. The interior is recorded to have held a number of statues including those of Alexander, Philip and their family, although none of these statues have survived.
Restoration was carried out and this can be seen in the different shade of the stone.
Towards the centre of the Altis is the Temple of Zeus, the construction of which began in 470 BCE and was completed in 456 BCE. Placed on a platform to raise it above the over buildings the temple is Doric in design with 13 columns on each side and 6 at each end each with a height of 34 feet (10.4 metres) and covered in a white marble stucco. Only ruins now remain, but it is still possible to see the format of the main buildings.
We can see the south colonnade with the fallen columns which were toppled by an earthquake.
The Temple was the largest temple in the Peloponnese, and it had at its centre a twelve-meter (39 feet) high gold and ivory statue of Zeus, making it one of the 12 wonders of the ancient world. The statue was made by Pheidias whose workshop can be seen at Olympia.
A number of the statues from the temple can be seen in the on-site museum, as can the remains of the pediments. The West pediment below shows the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths which resulted when the Centaurs tried to abduct the Lapiths’ women.
In the centre of the pediment stands a 10 foot (3 metre) high statue of the god Apollo. Another statue that was in the Temple and is now in the museum is the Nike of Paionios.
This has been called one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Standing just over 2 metres high it depicts the winged goddess descending from the heavens and setting foot on an eagle, the symbol of Zeus.
Along the terrace just before the entrance to the stadium with the vaulted entrance known as the Krypte due to it being covered over, is a row of sixteen pedestals, which supported the Zanes.
These were bronze statues of Zeus, created from the fines imposed on athletes for cheating at the Olympic Games. The statues were put near the entrance of the stadium so that the athletes would see them as they entered the stadium as a reminder of what could happen and dissuade them from cheating. None of the statues have survived. The Krypte was built in the late third century BCE and a monumental portico was added to its west extremity in the Roman period.
Passing through the vaulted entrance into the stadium is where the ancient Olympic Games and the Heraia, the women's games in honour of Hera, were held. The racetrack is 212.54 metres long and 30-34 metres wide.
Two stone markers 192.27 metres apart indicate the starting and finishing lines. On the south bank is a podium for judges, and opposite, on the north bank, the altar of Demeter Chamyne, whose priestess was the only woman allowed to watch the games. The stadium could accommodate approximately forty-five thousand people, but the banks never had permanent seating.
Olympia also contains many other buildings such as Gymnasiums, hostels, baths, treasuries and houses including that of the emperor Nero.
The site museum contains many statues and artefacts found at the site.
It also contains a model of the Altis showing how it would have looked.
Olympia became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.