Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus and birthplace of the Olympic Games, lies in a verdant valley of the western Peloponnese at the confluence of the rivers Alpheios
and Kladeos. A landscape of great natural beauty, the whole valley was in ancient times thickly wooded and full of wild olive trees, from the leaves of which were made the wreaths that crowned the Olympian champions; hence the site was named Altis
, meaning grove. It was also named Olympia
after Mt Olympus
, the abode of Zeus.
The beginnings of the sanctuary and its games are hazed in myths: Zeus prevailed in Olympia after dethroning his own father Cronus, who was worshiped upon the namesake hill to the north of the sanctuary. As to who was the founder of the games, several heroes claim the title; among them Hercules and Pelops, ancestor of the Homeric Agamemnon and mythical king of the Peloponnese
(the very name of the peninsula meaning the island of Pelops
). We reach the realm of history in 776 BC, the year of the first recorded athletic event that humanity nowadays celebrates as the Olympic Games
. Their ancient name was Olympia
and they were held every four years in honour of Zeus. The Olympiad
, the four-year period between two successive celebrations, became the standard chronological system of the ancient Greek world.
The Olympics were the panhellenic top sporting event that embodied the ideal of fair competition among free and equal men, as conveyed in the words let the best win
. There could be no greater honour for a youth of the time than to be crowned with the kotinos
, the champion's olive wreath, nor greater glory bestowed on the athlete's bithplace: when back home, part of the city walls were pulled down for the champion to enter. Before the opening of the Games, the Sacred Truce
was proclaimed, the treaty that imposed the suspension of wars and the cessation of all kinds of hostilities during the games. As an ideal of peace and reconciliation, the sacred truce lies at the heart of the Olympic values and is the most important legacy left by the ancient games to their modern successors.
The last Olympics of antiquity were held in AD 393, shortly before the emperor Theodosius I banned paganism and closed down the ancient sanctuaries. Then came successive earthquakes and river floods to bury the ancient ruins for centuries until the archaeological excavations brought them back to light in 1875. Twenty years later, in 1896, revived the first, and now international, Olympic Games of the modern era
, held in the Panathenaic Stadium
The archaeological site of Olympia, one of the largest in Greece, yielded a singularly rich concentration of monuments and works of art, such as the famous statues of Hermes by Praxiteles
and Nike by Paeonius
. Throughout antiquity, each century added its own structures, which gradually formed the complex topography of the sanctuary: the sacred precinct of Zeus, namely the temenos of Altis, enclosed the temples, votive offerings, and structures related to the religious activities. Outside the enclosure lay the athletic venues, the officials' quarters, the guesthouses and baths for athletes and visitors alike.
The temple of Hera
The first temple erected in Olympia around the end of the 7th c. BC was sacred to Hera not Zeus, who actually had to share the same roof with his wife for about two centuries. It seems that the temple also served as a kind of treasury, since within it were kept the disc of the Sacred Truce and the gold-and-ivory table for placing the winners' wreaths, while here was also found the statue of Hermes. In honour of the goddess were held the Heraia
foot race, an athletic competition solely for women, who otherwise were not allowed to participate or even watch the Olympic Games. Today, the temple of Hera is the starting point of the Olympic torch relay
: on the altar of Hera
, in front of the temple, the Olympic flame
is lit by reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror and then transported by a torch to the place where the games are held.
The temple of Zeus
Zeus was compensated with a gigantic temple built between 470 and 456 BC, in the most prominent position of the sanctuary. It was the largest temple in the Peloponnese and became a model for all subsequent Doric temples, while its sculptures represent a milestone in the history of classical art. The temple housed one of the Seven Wonders
of the ancient world, the chryselephantine statue of Zeus
by Pheidias. To make the over 12 m high statue, Pheidias worked in a purpose-built, on-site workshop, which resembled the interior of the temple where the statue would be placed. The finds from Pheidias workshop and ancient testimonies are all that we know about the chryselephantine Zeus; the statue was later carried off to Constantinople and destroyed by fire in AD 475.
Destined to memorialise the Macedonian dynasty, this elegant circular building was dedicated by Philip II, king of Macedon, himself Olympic champion in chariot racing. The monument was completed by Alexander the Great after the assassination of his father in 336 BC. Inside stood the gold-and-ivory statues of the royal family, works of the great 4th-century sculptor Leochares.
The stadium of Olympia
With a length of 192.28 m and a capacity of 45,000 spectators, it was the greatest stadium in ancient Greece. It was the main sports venue, with the exception of horse- and chariot racing, which were held at the hippodrome, now lost by the floodings of Alpheios. The games held in the stadium included running, wrestling and the pentathlon. Athletes did their workouts in the gymnasium
, while in front of the stadium stood statues of Zeus that reminded everyone to comply with the regulations; those statues were made with the fines paid by athletes accused for bribing opponents.
In the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens
, the ancient stadium of Olympia hosted the men's and women's shot put competition, crowning once more Olympic champions after 17 centuries of silence.
It was the seat of the Olympic Boule
, namely the supreme administrative authority of the sanctuary and the equivalent of the contemporary organizing committee of the games. The Olympic Boule was formed by the council of the citizens of the neighbouring Elis
, which unlike what happens today, was the one and only host city of the Olympic Games. The Olympic Boule also appointed the Hellanodikes
, the judges responsible for the orderly conduct of the games, for upholding the rules and punishing the offenders, but also for crowning the winners.
UNESCO World Heritage List
The ancient Olympic Games
The excavations at Olympia