They may not be the most spectacular ruins in Greece. But they are, without a doubt, the most mediatic. Because the troubles of Agamemnon, the fall of the Byzantine empire or the peculiarities of Mycenaean architecture may sound Chinese to ordinary mortals.
Who has not spent an afternoon of soporific heat in front of the television watching the Olympic Games? The ruins of Olympia, the city dedicated to Zeus where the most famous Games of Antiquity were held for more than a thousand years, emerge today in a remote place in the eastern Peloponnese to the delight of sports lovers, but also to a general public that, finally, finds it close and easy to understand all that usual stone carving in a Greek site.
Modern Olympia is a town without much interest made up of four streets and 800 souls who live for and for the tourism generated by the nearby site. There are dozens of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come each year to the ruins of the birthplace of the Olympic Games. What you must see in ancient Olympia are three spaces that will require a long morning (or almost the whole day if you want to explore them in detail): the archaeological site itself, the museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games and the Archaeological museum. The three are next to each other and are accessed with a single ticket that costs 6 euros and can be purchased at the door of any of them. There is a fourth museum, that of the History of the Excavations of Olympia, which has a separate entrance.
My advice is to start with the Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games, which is on a hill next to the first of the two parking spaces. It is not that it is spectacular, but it serves to make a composition of the place and better understand what happened in that enclave between the year 776 BC, when King Iphitos of Elide proclaimed the first official games inaugurated, and 394 AD. when Emperor Theodosius I the Great, of recognized Christian orthodoxy, abolished them as pagans. Years later, his granddaughter, Theodosius II, even more intransigent with paganism than his grandfather, ordered the destruction of the city of Olympia.
Apart from seeing some archaeological pieces, including a fabulous mosaic with motifs of athletes that is almost completely preserved, in this museum you will find out about curiosities such as that the predecessor of the inaugural parade of the modern Olympics is the sacred procession that marched from Elis —the capital from the city-state of Elide—, located 300 stadia (about 58 kilometers) from Olympia, their final destination. The hellanodikae (judges), the priests and rulers of Elis, the athletes with their coaches, the riders with their mounts and their chariots, followed by the people, the numerous visitors and pilgrims who arrived attracted by the festivities and the animals, participated in it. they were to be sacrificed. Only when the procession arrived at Olympia, after two days of marching, were the Games declared inaugurated, which, as now, They were held every four years – an Olympics – coinciding with the second Moon after the summer solstice (current August). They brought together athletes from all the city states of the Greek area who, for a few days, left internal struggles and wars to compete in peace and harmony. For this, the Sacred Truce was declared, a cessation of hostilities in the convulsed Hellenistic world, where fighting with the neighbor was the most popular activity. The Sacred Truce was so respected by all that in the 1,169 years that the Games lasted, not once did they have to be suspended or delayed. they left the internal fights and the wars to compete in peace and harmony. For this, the Sacred Truce was declared, a cessation of hostilities in the convulsed Hellenistic world, where fighting with the neighbor was the most popular activity. The Sacred Truce was so respected by all that in the 1,169 years that the Games lasted, not once did they have to be suspended or delayed. they left the internal fights and the wars to compete in peace and harmony. For this, the Sacred Truce was declared, a cessation of hostilities in the convulsed Hellenistic world, where fighting with the neighbor was the most popular activity. The Sacred Truce was so respected by all that in the 1,169 years that the Games lasted, not once did they have to be suspended or delayed.
More curiosities that you will learn in the museum: women were prohibited not only from participating in the event, but also from their presence as spectators. If anyone contravened the order, she was thrown down a ravine. The only woman on record who attended a competition and came out unscathed was Kallipateira de Rodas, daughter and mother of famous Olympic champions, who, in the Games in 396 B.C. C. she was placed to see her son participate and win the boxing championship. She was pardoned out of respect for the Olympic glories achieved by her family. She also had children’s competitions. The most popular sports were boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing, which were incorporated into the twenty-fifth edition of the tournament.
From the History Museum, continue along a pleasant tree-lined walkway to the entrance of the ruins. Considering the health with which the demolition crew sent by the fundamentalist Theodosius II was employed and the effects of several earthquakes in the sixth century, too much has been left of poor and once lavish Olympia. The ruins were covered by a layer of more than six meters of earth until they were rediscovered at the end of the 18th century.
The first thing that appears is the sanctuary of Olympia, which is currently under excavation. Behind him is the arena, an enormous quadrangular patio where the participants trained in boxing, wrestling and jumping; it was surrounded by arcades and rooms where athletes undressed and anointed themselves with oils. Poets and scholars also used the arena to read their odes and manifestos. It is one of the best preserved and most recognizable structures. To the left of the arena stands what remains of the Philippeus, the circular temple of the Ionic order ordered to be built by Philip II, the Macedonian king and father of Alexander the Great. It is the most photogenic structure of what is left of Olympia, because it was partially rebuilt in 2005 by the German team of archaeologists that has carried the weight of the excavations since its inception.
And so, dozens and dozens of temples and facilities of which there are hardly any stones left lying on the ground. The most impressive of all is the temple of Zeus, the largest and most magnificent of the entire site, where the famous statue of the father of all the gods was sculpted in gold and ivory, considered one of the Seven Wonders of Antiquity and which Theodosius II took Constantinople. The statue was sculpted by Phidias, the most famous sculptor of classical Greece, in a workshop that archaeologists discovered very close to the temple and in which several of his tools appeared; The building was later converted into a Christian basilica. I don’t know if the destruction of the temple of Zeus in Olympia was the work of man or earthquakes, but all its pieces —columns, capitals, bases, rafters—are complete and scattered across the floor, like a broken puzzle crying out to be restored. Lack of funding, I guess.
Unfortunately, the most sought after by the modern tourist in ancient Olympia is what disappoints the most: the stadium. It could be supposed that, in a city created for the celebration of sporting events and favored by rulers of all centuries with fabulous temples built with the best marbles, the place that should host the object of all that staging —that is, the sports events— It would be the most spectacular of all. Well no. The Olympia stadium never had stone steps or a resenable podium; It was and is an esplanade 192.27 meters long by 28.50 meters wide, surrounded by slopes whose grass accommodated up to 45,000 spectators. The only fixed structure was a box on the southern flank from where the judges (hellanodikae) evaluated the tests.
On August 18, 2004, exactly 1,611 years after the last event, the Olympic Games returned to this stadium. It was during the Games in Athens, when 15,000 spectators seated on these grassy slopes had the honor of attending a shot put test free of charge that was scheduled here as a tribute to the site that saw the birth of the Games, in one day —according to the attendees—full of symbolism and emotions.
Although at this point you are already tired of so much stone and the weight of history, you have to make one last effort and end the visit in the very interesting and highly recommended Archaeological Museum of Olympia, located in a newly built white building in another corner of the enclosure, next to the second car park.
It exhibits all the pieces that have been appearing in the excavations since the end of the 19th century. Hundreds of vessels, statues, votive pieces, coins, shields, armor, helmets, bronze cauldrons and other gold and silver objects. In addition to true archaeological jewels, such as the Nike of Paeonios (a winged statue given by the Messenians and the Naupacts to the temple of Zeus with a tenth of the booty obtained in their war against the Spartans) or the Hermes of Praxiteles, which appeared among the remains of the Hera temple. And above all, the two sculptural groups that decorated the friezes of the two facades of the temple of Zeus, which have been able to be reconstructed almost in their entirety.