General Information on Olympia

Olympia is one of the most popular and visited destinations in the Peloponnese, as this was where the ancient Olympic Games were held. It was a festivity, important not only to this region, but the rest of Greece, and the entire world. This destination has been visited and explored by archaeologists, historians and scientists, in general, from the whole world, and you may meet tourists from every place at almost any time of the year.

The city of Olympia is also famous for its impressive statue of Zeus, a statue of great size made of gold and ivory, within a temple built in honour of the deity. Olympia is situated in an area surrounded by hills and mountains in such a way that they provide a very peculiar and interesting background to this ancient spot. Discovering the ancient city of Olympia, its antique statues and ruins can be one of the most memorable experiences tourists may have while exploring the Peloponnese. Also, the modern city of Olympia is a collection of tourist shops, cafes, restaurants and a Historical Museum of the Olympic Games.

History of Olympia

The oldest Greek inhabitants of Ilias were Achaeans from Thessaly, Arcadia, Aetolia, as well as, Boetia and Attica. Although the origins of Olympia date back to Mycenaean times, great goddess Rea was worshipped here in the 1st millennium B.C. By the Classic era, Rea had been superseded by her son Zeus. At the beginning of the 11th century B.C. a small regional festival, which probably included athletic events, was held here.

The first Olympic festival was organised on the site by the authorities of Ilias in the 8th century B.C. but tradition dates the first games at 776 B.C. The Olympic Games were held every four years, and later the Greek method of year counting referred to these Games, using the term Olympiad for the period between two Games. Historian Ephorus who lived here in the 4th century B.C. is believed to have invented the use of Olympiads to count years, much as we use A.D. and B.C. today. Previously, every Greek state used its own dating system, something that continued for local events, leading to confusion when trying to determine dates. The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held every two –or four– years, but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were the most important and most prestigious. The games were held in honour of Zeus and took place at the time of the first full moon in August. The athletic festival lasted five days and included wrestling, chariot and horse racing, the pentathlon (wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, long jump and running), and the pancratium (a form of wrestling). The early Olympics were also where the Greek tradition of athletic nudity was first introduced in 720 B.C., either by the Spartans or the Megarians. At first, only free-born Greek males were allowed to participate but later, Romans were also permitted. The tradition was that all participating states would cease fighting, lay down their arms during the period of the games. Slaves and women were not allowed to enter the sanctuary, even as spectators. According to legend, women who tried to sneak in were thrown from a nearby rock. The winner would receive an olive branch at the end of the games. Winning the Games was one of the greatest achievements of those times. When the winner returned home, his fellow citizens welcomed him as a hero by breaking a part of the city’s defensive wall for him to enter. By the 4th century B.C. when the games were at their peak, the athletes were almost all professional and heavily sponsored and rewarded for their victories.

The event at Olympia also served other purposes besides athletic competition. Writers, poets and historians read their work to a large audience and traders clinched business deals. City-state leaders talked in an atmosphere of festivity and citizens of various cities got together. The games continued during the first years of Roman rule. By this time, however, their importance had declined. Finally, the Olympic Games were suppressed by Emperor Theodosius A’ as part of a campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. The site of Olympia remained until an earthquake destroyed it in the 6th century A.D. Modern Olympic Games were instituted in 1896 and, except during WWI and WWII, they have been held every four years in different cities around the world. The Olympic flame is lit at the ancient site and carried by runners to the city where the games are held.

Top Things to Do in Olympia

The sanctuary, known as the Altis, consists of an unordered arrangement of various buildings. Enclosed within the temenos are the Temple of Hera and Temple of Zeus, the Pelopion and the area of the altar, where sacrifices were made. The hippodrome and stadium were also to the east. To the north lay the Prytaneion and the Philippeion, as well as an array of treasuries representing various city states. The Metroon is situated to the south of these treasuries, with the Echo Arcade to the east. To the south of the sanctuary is the South Arcade and the Bouleyterion, whereas the west side houses the Palaestra, the workshop of Pheidias, the Gymnasion and the Leonidaion. Due to Theodosius II and various earthquakes, little remains of those magnificent buildings of ancient Olympia, but still enough to sustain an absorbing visit to this unique site.

1. The Temple of Zeus: This is the most outstanding building of the site. It was built during the 5th century B.C. by Livon and contained the 12 meter high statue of Zeus constructed by famous sculptor Phideas, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which was removed to Constantinople by Theodosius A’ and was destroyed in a fire. The statue portrayed Zeus enthroned, holding a sceptre in his left hand and a winged Victory in his right. The temple had thirteen columns at the sides and an east-west orientation. The columns were of local shell-limestone and only the pedimental sculptures, roof tiles and lion’s head water spouts were of marble. In 426 A.D., the temple was burnt by order of Theodosius B’. Badly damaged by the fire, it was finally completely destroyed during the earthquakes of 551 and 552 A.D. Excavations at the temple began in 1829 by the French. Part of the sculptural decoration have been restored and are now on display in the Olympia Archaeological Museum, while the metopes removed by the French expedition of 1829 are in the Louvre Museum.

2. The Temple of Hera: This is one of the oldest monumental temples in Greece, and stands in the northwest corner of the sacred precinct of the Altis. It was dedicated to the Olympian sanctuary by the inhabitants of Skillous and ancient city of Elias. There are many theories about the time of construction, but the prevailing one is that the entire temple was built around 600 B.C. The temple was built in Doric style with sixteen columns at the sides. The original wooden columns were gradually replaced by stone ones, which belong to every period from the Archaic to Roman times, and display the full development of the Doric style. The temple was divided in three chambers; at the far end of the second chamber stood the statues of Zeus and Hera. Zeus was depicted standing next to Hera, who was seated on a throne. The archaic stone head of Hera was recovered near the Heraion and is now displayed in the Olympia Archaeological musem. Today, only the temple basement and its massive orthostates and lower part of the columns are visible. Fragments of the terracotta entablature and the central akroterion are displayed in the museum.

3. Ancient Stadium of Olympia: the stadium lies to the east of the Altis and may be entered through an archway. The stadium received its final form in the fifth century, when the great temple of Zeus was built. By then, the Games had become very popular, attracting a great number of both visitors and athletes. The start and finish lines of the 120 meters sprint track and the judges’ seats are still preserved. The stadium could accommodate approximately forty-five thousand people. The early German excavations first investigated the race track, but the recent German excavation of 1952-1966 uncovered the entire monument. In 2004, the ancient stadium of Olympia relived its former glory, since it was the host of the shot put event of the Athens Olympic Games.

4. The Bouleuterion (=Council House): This is one of the most ancient and important buildings of the sanctuary of Olympia. It is situated south of the temple of Zeus and it was built from the 6th to the 4th century B.C. It was the seat of the Elean Senate, whose members were responsible for the organisation of the games. In this building, athletes were registered and drew lots, and their names and the program of events were announced. It was also where any offences and pleas were tried, and where penalties were decided. According to Pausanias, in Bouleuterion competitors, their relatives and their trainers swore that they would conduct fair play in the games, and judges swore that they would not accept bribes and that they would be fair. Today, only the building foundations have survived but currently there has been limited restoration, and the area around the monument has been planted with trees.

5. The Ancient Gymnasium: This building is situated at the northwest of the Altis enclosure on a flat stretch of land. It is adjacent to the Palaestra and it was used by the athletes as a practice track and as a field for the pentathlon. Before the construction of the gymnasium in the Hellenistic period, these events took place outdoors. The remaining structure dates to the 2nd century B.C. Today, the Gymnasium is only partly preserved. Its west wing was swept away by the Kladeos River, while its north section has not yet been investigated.

6. The Palaestra: It is situated west of the Altis enclosure and it was built in the 3rd century B.C. as part of the gymnasium complex. The Palaestra was used to practice boxing, wrestling and jumping. The building is almost square and at its centre was an open court with fine sand on which athletes trained. Around the court were rooms of various sizes in which athletes anointed their bodies with oil or powdered them with dust, undressed and washed. The Palaestra was excavated and studied by the German School in recent years. Today, only the lower, stone parts are preserved and thirty two of the seventy two columns of the internal peristyle have been restored.

7. The Philippieion: This is the only circular building inside the Altis and one of the finest examples of ancient Greek architecture. The building is situated west of the Temple of Hera and it was dedicated to Zeus by Philip II of Macedon after his victory at Chaironeia in 338 B.C. When Philip II died, his son, Alexander the Great completed the monument and placed the statues of his family inside, which were crafted by famous sculptor Leochares. The monument was also used for the worship of the deified royal family of Macedon. Today, only the foundations and lower part of the walls are visible. However, during the Athens Olympic Games of 2004, the Berlin Museum returned ten of the building’s architectural members for restoration, which is currently under way.

How to Reach Olympia

Coaches: Frequent buses connect Olympia to Athens (5½ hours) and Pyrgos every day.

Train: Four train services connect Olympia to Katakolo daily.

Weather in Olympia

The Peloponnese Peninsula has a typical Mediterranean climate with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Rain falls mostly between October and March.

Map of Olympia

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