Ancient Olympia

Due to a change in schedules, I left from my first work placement a few days earlier than I had planned. At first it was a bit frustrating, but I understand that peoples’ schedules change – plus it gave me a great chance to get out and see some more of Greece and especially throughout the Peloponnese. I decided to tag along with my fellow co-helpers with a trip to Ancient Olympia.

We got lucky and the day we had to leave was a day that the shorter bus route from Tripoli to Olympia ran. This route runs across the mountains and only operates on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The ride took about three hours and traversed through picturesque mountain villages, some with impossibly narrow streets and bridges that I wasn’t sure if our bus would fit through. But somehow we managed and we arrived safely in Olympia. The town of Olympia is nothing special – two main streets and loads of souvenir shops and tourist-trap restaurants.

The Temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia
The Temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia

Olympia is home to Ancient Olympia, which is of course home of the Olympic Games. The original Olympic Games were held every four years from 776 BC until the Roman emperor and ended them in 394 AD (1170 years or about 292 Olympiads).  Events included foot races (with and without armor), chariot races, boxing, wrestling, jumping and other equestrian events.

The games were held in honor of Zeus, so it is only fitting that the largest structure in Ancient Olympia is the Temple of Zeus. The Temple of Zeus was home to one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the giant Statue of Zeus that was made of ivory and gold plating over a wooden structure (the technical term is chryselephantine sculpture) and was 42 ft (13 m) tall.  The statue itself, however was destroyed in unknown circumstances. The most common theory is that it was looted and carted off to Constantinople (Istanbul) where it was destroyed in a fire in 475 AD. The temple itself was destroyed in an earthquake around 551 AD. One of the columns was reconstructed to give visitors a sense of the scale, while the rest of the columns lay in chunks around the temple.

The Palaestra at Ancient Olympia, training ground for many athletes
The Palaestra at Ancient Olympia, training ground for many athletes

There are several other interesting buildings at Ancient Olympia, in various stages of ruin. My favorite was the palaestra, the training grounds for the boxers, wrestlers and jumpers. During the month leading up the Olympics, athletes arrived from their respective city-states, under an Olympic truce, ceasing all hostilities in Greece. The athletes trained together at Olympia before competing in what grew from a one day competition to five full days of competition. Of course only Greek men and boys were allowed to compete – and to watch the events.

One of the coolest things about Ancient Olympia is the Stadium. The Stadium was home to many of the events, most notably the foot races. There weren’t stands or bleachers, but up to 45,000 people (men) could watch from the grassy slopes surrounding the track. About 200 meters long, the track is evident and filled with people fulfilling their Olympic fantasies. There were lots of races, and dozens of people posing as if they were starting a race. Everyone was feeling the Olympic spirit!

Stadium at Ancient Olympia
Stadium at Ancient Olympia

We ventured to two museums, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of the Olympic Games in Antiquity. The Archaeological Museum contains statues, pottery and other artifacts from the site at Ancient Olympia and Ancient Greece. Of note are the murals from the Temple of Zeus, the Nike (Goddess of Victory, not shoes) from the temple, and the Hermes of Praxis that was found in the Temple of Hera. This museum focuses more on the life and architecture of Ancient Greece, while the second museum focuses more on the games themselves.

Overall, Olympia was a very cool thing to see and picture the Ancient Greeks running, boxing and jumping. The Olympic Games have changed over the nearly three thousand years since they started, but the Olympic spirit remains strong around the world.

 

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