It is amazing that ancient Olympia existed at all. The Greeks were constantly at war with one another. And that was when they weren’t fighting the Persians. Someone once described the ancient Greek way of life as ”a period of perpetual warfare punctuated by outbreaks of peace”.
Some of those times of peace occured every four years, during the month when the games took place. All the Greek states had agreed that they would cease their fighting to allow competitors and spectators to travel to Olympia in the Peloponnese, stay there for the duration of the games, and then have time to get home safely.
It seems an impossible agreement, but apparently it worked. Even the very powerful states like Athens and Sparta signed up to it.
Buried for centuries
The site fell into disuse after the last games were held there in 393 AD. Silt and floods from the river Alpheios, landslides and rockfalls from Mount Cronos, and numerous earthquakes resulted in the site disappearing under a 3m to 4m (9 – 13 feet) layer of mud.
A frenchman first suggested the location of the site in the early 1700’s. The first excavations took place in 1829 when the temple of Zeus was explored. Then a german team conducted a comprehensive excavation between 1875 and 1881.
And don’t imagine it was only in ancient times that the site was threatened with destruction. Fierce forest fires ravaged many parts of the Peloponnese in August 2007 (AD!). There was a real danger of them destroying ancient Olympia, and it was only after the authorities had used every resource they could lay their hands on that the site was saved.
Because of the fires most of the vegetation around the site has been destroyed, so today it doesn’t look quite as pleasant as it appears in some of the photos.
The site consists of buildings outside the sanctuary, or Altis, and those inside. As with most greek sites some of the structures have very early dates, from the 6C or even 7C BC. Most of the buildings date from later periods, including the Hellenistic and Roman eras.
One of the most important buildings was the Temple of Zeus. Remember, the original objective of the games was in honour of the gods, so this was a very important place. The Temple of Hera predates that of Zeus and is one of the oldest structures.
Partially restored Philippeion
When the ancient Olympic games became more political in nature, famous people added their own projects. Philip of Macedon started the round tholos temple known as the Philippeion, and it was completed by his more famous son, Alexander the Great.
Outside the Altis is the well-preserved stadium, where you can still see the starting line. Finally, the museum contains finds from the excavations. These cover all stages that ancient olympia went through, and will give you a fascinating insight into the development of the site. I find museums such as this are invaluable in helping us to appreciate the skill and craftmanship of those who contributed to the achievement which is ancient olympia. The map of Olympia Greece shows where the site its in relation to Athens, together with some travel information.
Top Attractions in Olympia
- Plan of ancient Olympia Greece
- The Temple of Zeus
- The Temple of Hera
- The Ancient Olympic Games
- Ancient Olympia Greece Museum