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Ancient Olympia by Zarifah Nawar


Olympia was an ancient Greek sanctuary site in the western Peloponnese, in Elis. It was dedicated to Zeus and the site of the Panhellenic Olympic games. It is 10 miles inland from the Ionian Sea and in a valley where the rivers Alfios and Kladios meet. 


The earliest remains found at the site date back to 2000 BC, but the sanctuary itself existed from 1000 BC. At first, Kronos (the father of Zeus) was worshipped at the Kronion hill at the north of the sanctuary. There were also several smaller sanctuaries dedicated to nymphs and goddesses such as Aphrodite. The earliest sanctuary of these was the Gaion, which was dedicated to the goddess Gaia and her daughter Themis. By the Classical era, the sanctuary was almost purely used for the worship of Zeus, but the practice of worshipping the other smaller deities did not completely disappear. Pausanias (an ancient Greek traveller and writer) noted that there were 69 different alters dotted around the site. The worship of all of these different deities helped the Greeks maintain their Panhellenic culture.

The Olympic Games were held at Olympia from 776 BC. They were abolished in 393 AD by Emperor Theodosius since it was considered a pagan custom. The temples at Olympia were then turned into churches and the statues were moved to Constantinople. 

The Remains

Unlike other sanctuaries such as the Acropolis in Athens, the architectural development of Olympia was unplanned. As a result, the sanctuary sprawled out with new buildings erected in an almost haphazard fashion. The sacred precinct, known as the Altis, takes on an irregular shape. It is bound on the northern side by Mount Kronos and on the western side by the river Kladios. Frequent landslides in the area meant that building work in ancient Olympia was often interrupted, and pre-existing buildings destroyed due to the natural disasters. 

Olympia was an area where religious, political and sporting events were conducted simultaneously. For the athletes participating in the Olympic games, there was a stadium, gymnasium and hippodrome. For the audience there were baths and a hotel called the Leonidaion. Especially notable guests stayed at the Villa of Nero. Political events took place in the Bouleuterion (council house) and the Prytaneion (this contained a banqueting room and a hearth which burned with a constant fire). The Philippeion was a tholos, which was built to celebrate Philip of Macedon’s victory at Chaironeia in 338 BC. It was the only temple in the sanctuary dedicated to a human and as such had an overtly political message.

In terms of the religious buildings, the most notable were the temples of Zeus and Hera. The temple of Zeus featured a chryselephantine statue of the god, built by Phidias, which rivalled the statue of Athena inside the Parthenon in Athens. The temple of Zeus was lavishly decorated with architectural sculptures. The east pediment of the temple of Zeus depicted the preparations for the mythical chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus, undoubtedly a nod to the Olympic games. The west pediment depicted a centauromachy – a battle between centaurs and the Lapiths. The temple of Zeus also featured metopes that depicted Hercules’ twelve labours. Phidias, the sculptor in charge of the temple, had an adjacent workshop that mimicked the layout of the temple itself on a smaller scale, making it easier to plan out the designs. 

The temple of Hera was long and narrow. The columns of the temple were originally made in wood and gradually replaced with stone. Although this temple was not as decorated as the temple of Zeus, inside it featured a statue of Hera sitting on a throne with Zeus standing beside her. The altar of Zeus was near the temple of Hera. It was 22 feet tall and piled with the ashes of animals that had been sacrificed. Between the two temples was also the Pelopion which was a sanctuary dedicated to the hero Pelops. 

After the Olympic games were abolished, the sanctuary fell into decline. Overtime earthquakes and silt from the nearby rivers completely covered the buildings. It was rediscovered in 1829 by the French Archaeological Mission and excavations began in 1875 by the German Archaeological Institute.

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