Ancient Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympic Games and a holy site, while also being an important centre of the Greek and International civilisation, for thousands of years. The city is built in western Peloponnese, on the foot of the Kronios hill, on the valley between the rivers Alpheus and Kladeos.
According to the legends, Oenomaus king of Pisa had a daughter he adored, named Hippodamia. However, he had received an oracle that he would find death in the hands of the man who would marry her, and for that reason he refused to allow her to be married. To avoid suspicion, he organised chariot races with the prospective suitors, the prize being Hippodamia's hand in marriage, competing in them as well.
However, he knew undoubtedly that he would be the winner; his horses were god-given and no mortal man could beat him. In addition, after the race, the winner would kill the loser. Thirteen young princes found death in his hands before Pelops, son of King Tantalus of Lydia, appeared. Hippodamia fell in love with him instantly and decided to aid him in defeating her father. She asked for the help of Oenomaus' horse keeper, Myrtilus, who under cover of the night before the race, replaced the wooden arm that connected the chariot to the yoke of the horses with one made of wax.
The wax of course melted under the hot sun during the race, the chariot was overturned and Oenomaus was killed. The oracle fulfilled, the couple married and Pelops became king of Pisa. Hippodamia, to show gratitude to Hera, the goddess who stood by her and helped her, organised the Heraean Games, women's sports games dedicated to the goddess. Pelops organised chariot races dedicated to the father of the gods, Zeus.
The two games grew in renown and became the beginning for the Olympic Games. This myth is how the ancient Greeks explained the origin of the great sports games.
Remains of a settlement dating back to the third millennium BC were found in the foot of the Kronios hill, possibly abandoned around 2,000 BC. Remains of a prehistoric settlement, dating from the end of the Middle Bronze Age were also found a few kilometres north of Olympia, in the point named Kafkanas. That particular building, possibly abandoned due to a fire, contained an oval pebble with Linear B symbols written on it, something that points to a Mycenaean presence in the area.
Around 1,100-1,000 BC, a reviving starts in Ancient Olympia, thanks to religious activity around the Pelopion, the burial place of Pelops, and the ash altar that was dedicated to Zeus. Around the two monuments extended the holy grove named Altis, and on its trees the members of the cult would hang their offerings. Because of that, ancient Olympia steadily grew and was soon established as the religious centre of the Olympian Zeus, who, being an oracular god, would decide on the outcome of wars.
During the 8th century BC, in 776 BC, Hippias of Elis in his Chronicle mentions that the rulers Ifitos of Elis, Lycurgus of Sparta and Kleosthenes of Pisa agreed on the performance of religious celebrations in Olympia, under the condition of a sacred truce that lasted during the whole event, so that athletes from all the Greek world would be able to attend. In the 7th century BC, great changes swept through Olympia; the foot of Kronios hill was flattened, the ruins of older settlements were covered and the river bed of Kladeos was moved, allowing for the building of the Stadium. When, in the 5th century, Themistocles, the victor of the naval battle of Salamis visited the holy place, the Games had already grown in importance. This created an influx of funds which allowed for the building of great historical monuments.
Up to the 1st century BC, Ancient Olympia kept on growing, being the meeting point of religious worshippers, athletes and key figures in all fields. That stopped when Sulla, the Roman general pillaged the city. From that point onward, the Roman emperors put the holy site, as well as the Olympic Games under their protection. This created a second period of growth for both.
Around 300 AD, a powerful earthquake shook the area and the terrible floods that followed carried away parts of the Gymnasium and the Baths. In 426, Theodosius II, encouraged by his sister Pulcheria, burned the holy place to the ground. Two more earthquakes in 521 and 522, along with the burning, lead to the total abandonment of the area, then known as Serviana or Allotino.
The first excavations in the area took place in 1829 from the French Scientific Expedition in Peloponnese, resulting in great discoveries like part of the temple of Zeus. Excavations continue to this day, in combination with works of preservation and restoration.
- Temple of Zeus: One of the most magnificent temples of the ancient Greeks. It was built in 470-456 BC, as is stated on a plaque by the Lacedaemonians, and it was an offering of the people of Elis to Zeus, payed with by spoils of war. It sits in the centre of the Altis and has 6 columns on its short sides and 13 on its long, each measuring 10.43 metres in height. The temple is split in three areas: the pronaos, porch of a temple, the nave and the opisthodomos, the back part of the temple, its sides usually closed off to allow for more privacy. The awarding of the winners of the Olympics took place in the pronaos. The nave was divided in three aisles, and in the back stood the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, decorated with gold and ivory, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was a huge statue, made in 430 BC by Phidias, a sculptor of renown. According to Pausanias's descriptions, the statue was 12 metres high, showing the god sitting on a throne, holding in his left hand a sceptre and in his right a smaller statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. After the end of the Olympic Games, the chryselephantine statue of Zeus was transported to Constantinople, and was destroyed there in 475 AD, in a great fire.
- Temple of Hera: It sits on the northwest of Kronios hill and was an offering of the citizens of Skillountia, an ancient city of Helis. Before construction begun, a supporting wall was built around the site. The temple is of Doric order, with a peripteros, a colonnaded perimeter of 6 columns on the short side and 16 on the long. The lack of uniformity shows that the columns were initially wooden and later replaced by stone ones. Dated around the year 600 BC, it has a pronaos, a nave, an opisthodomos and a peripteros. The nave housed the statues of the divine couple, Zeus and Hera, with Hera sitting in her throne and Zeus standing besides her. The sixteen noble Elean women that organised the Heraean Games made the offering of a new veil every four years to the statue inside the temple. Pausanias writes that inside the temple was a brass disk, on which were carved the rules that all athletes had to follow to participate in the Olympic Games.
- Treasuries: A series of small temple-shaped buildings sit on an artificial level higher than the level of Altis and are the [Tributes? Dedications? Offerings?] of leaders and city-states. They are simple in construction, with a rectangle nave and two Doric columns between beams; though the Treasury of Gela was prostyle and hexastyle. Inside the Treasuries, the city-states, the leaders or the Greek colonies kept the precious offerings to the holy site.
- The Palaestra: West of Altis, outside the holy site, the Palaestra was built in the 3rd century BC. It was a square building, sized 66.35 by 66.75 metres, and was used by the athletes to practice boxing, wrestling and pankration, a mix of boxing, wrestling and kicking with few rules. In the Palaestra's centre was a colonnaded yard filled with thin sand, while around the yard were closed rooms for the athletes and the coaches to stay in.
- Gymnasium: Northwest of Altis, next to the bed of Kladeos river, sits a building that served the same purpose as the Palaestra, that is, a place for the athletes to practice. The Gymnasium is an elongated building with a large central yard, surrounded by doric arcades. In the open-air yard, 200 by 100 metres in size, the athletes would train in jumping, running, and the throwing of javelin and disk.
- Prytaneion-Bouleuterion (Council house): The Prytaneion was the seat of the sanctuary's officials and those who were responsible for the sacrifices to the gods. It sat inside the holy site, facing the Gymnasium. The feasts to honour the winners were organised here, at the end of every Olympic Games. Also, a flame burned, every day and night to honour Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, and was later the inspiration for the Olympic Flame of modern Olympic Games. The Bouleuterion, south of Altis and outside the holy site, was the seat of the Council of Elis, charged with organising the Olympic Games.
- Philippeion: A magnificent circular building, one of only five of Ancient Greece. Its diameter measured 15.24 metres and 18 Ionic columns supported its conical roof that was covered with marble tiles. King Philip II of Macedonia begun its building in 338 BC after his victory in the Battle of Chaeronea, to show the dominion of Macedonia in the Greek world. After his death, it was completed by his son Alexander, who dedicated the building to his father, naming it after him. In the inside of its single circular chamber, five chryselephantine statues of lions decorated the space, made by Leochares. They represented Philip's parents, Amyntas III and Eurydice I, Philip himself, his wife Olympias and their son, Alexander the Great.
- Nymphaeum: Under the elevated level of the Treasuries sits an impressive building shaped in a semicircle, build during the Roman period of 141-157 BC. It was built by Herodes Atticus, hence the name exedra of Herodes Atticus, who was a rich Roman, patron of the arts and philosopher. He built it to honour his wife, Regilla. It was an aqueduct, shaped like a monumental fountain, the water's spring being east of the holy place, and moved to the aqueduct through a system of pipes to the two reservoirs of the Nymphaeum. The semicircular wall on the back side of the monument had a height of two stories and had alcoves decorated by statues of Roman emperors. In the centre of each story stood the statue of Zeus. In the centre of the aqueduct was a statue of a bull, with a plaque dedicated it to Regilla, since she was a priestess of the goddess Demeter Chamyne. The name Nymphaeum comes from the ancient Greek belief that next to each spring lives a nymph.
- Echo Stoa: An imposing, long stoa (chamber), build during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, around 350 BC. It faced Altis and was decorated with 44 Doric columns on its outer perimeter, and with an Ionic colonnade inside. It was famous for its acoustic properties; according to tradition, one word said would be repeated seven times by the echo. Inside the Echo Stoa were organised musical games. The interior's back wall was decorated with murals of great painters of the ancient world.
- Pheidias' Workshop - Byzantine Church: North of the sanctuary are found ruins of a proto-Christian church, built in the middle of the 5th century. During the excavations, it was revealed that under it was Pheidias' workshop; the site had the exact same size as the nave of Zeus' temple, since the great artist created the Chryselephantine statue of Zeus here.
- Leonidaion: It was the "hotel" of the sanctuary. It is named after the funder, Leonidas of Naxos. It was a monumental building, two stories high, square in shape and 80 by 73.51 metres in size. It had a central yard with a garden and a small artificial lake, surrounded by a Doric stoa with 44 columns and an Ionian stoa with 138 columns. Between the two colonnades were luxurious rooms. The rich and famous visitors stayed here while either visiting the holy site or during the Olympic Games. During the Roman period, two more luxurious hotels were built near the Leonidaion.
- Zanes: Facing the elevated level of the Treasuries was a line of pedestals on which sat the Zanes, brass statues of Zeus. They symbolised the heavy penalties that awaited all athletes who cheated during the Games. On the pedestal of the statue would be carved the name of the cheating athlete, as well as his father's name and the city he represented. Today, 16 such pedestals stand next to each other.
- Stadium: In its initial form, it had a width of 30 metres and a length of 192.25 metres. That length of 192.25 metres was, according to tradition, measured by Hercules himself, and it measured 60 feet. 20 athletes could run in the same time and it could hold 30,000-35,000 spectators. The entrance was simple up to the 1st century BC, when the Romans added an arched roof, named Crypt. The Stadium's perimeter follows a small furrow that was filled with running water for the spectators to drink, who would sit on the ground since there were no seats. On the Stadium's long side are the ruins of the Step of Hellanodikai, the place where the judges sat. Facing them are the ruins of a stone altar to the goddess Demeter Chamyne, by which stood the priestess who was the only woman allowed to watch the Games.
Entrance ticket: 6€ full price, 3€ reduced.
Archaeological site and museum ticket: 9€ full, 5€ reduced.
Free entrance days: 6th of March in memory of Melina Merouri; 5th of June - World Environment Day; 18th of April - International Monuments Day; 18th of May - International Museums Day; the last weekend of September - European Heritage Days; every first Sunday of the month between 1st of November and 31st of March.
Opening Hours: Monday to Friday 8:00 to 20:00, Saturday to Sunday 8:00 to 15:00.