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Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Olympia Site & Village

Olympia Site & VillageOlympia Site & Village View slideshow

Olympia, lying in the angle between the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos, was a great Panhellenic sanctuary, the venue of the Olympic Games. German excavations from 1875 onwards, which led to the establishment of the present village of Olympia, brought to light the sacred precinct which was known in antiquity as the Altis (the sacred grove) and is now again planted with trees. Situated at the foot of the wooded Mt Kronos in an area of gentle hills, the site of ancient Olympia - one of the great achievements of archeological excavation - makes an impact on the present-day visitor which is fully commensurate with its importance in ancient times. A direct consequence of the excavation was the revival of the Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the first Games of modern times being held in Athens in 1896.

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Olympia - Site

Columns of ancient Olympia.
The road from the village of Olympia crosses the Kladeos on a modern bridge and comes to the large parking lot. Entering the site, we see on the left the Prytaneion, in which the victors were entertained with a banquet, and on the right the Gymnasion, with a propylon at the southeast corner (second century B.C.; only east end preserved), and the Palaistra (third century B.C.), the columns of which have been re-erected. Beyond this, on a site originally occupied by fifth century baths, is the Workshop of Pheidias, which was later converted into a church. In this workshop, which was exactly the same size as the naos of the temple of Zeus, Pheidias created (438 B.C. onwards) the huge chryselephantine cult statue of Zeus. Continuing south, we come to the Leonidaion, at the south- west corner of the excavated area. Originally built by Leonidas of Naxos in the second half of the fourth century B.C. as a large hostel for the accommodation of visitors to the sanctuary, this was altered in Roman times to a new layout in which the living quarters were set round an inner court with a garden and fountains and surrounded externally by Ionic colonnades. To the east are the Southern Baths (A.D. second century), the South Stoa (fourth century B.C.) and the Bouleuterion with its two apses (sixth-fifth century B.C.). All these buildings lie outside the walls of the Altis.

Sacred Precinct

We enter the Sacred Precinct at Altis through a Roman gateway on the south side and see, beyond the triangular pillar which bore Paionios's figure of Victory (ca. 425 B.C.) and the bases of numerous votive monuments, the temple of Zeus, built by Libon of Elis between 470 and 456 B.C., which has been called "the finest expression of the Doric canon" (Gruben). A ramp leads up to the entrance.

Temple of Zeus

Remains of the ancient Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
Although the temple of Zeus at Olympia collapsed in an earthquake in the A.D. sixth century the massive remains still allow us to gain some idea of what it was like. On the three-stepped crepidoma (27.7m/91ft by 64.1m/210ft; completely preserved), supported on foundations 3m/10ft high, stood 6 x 13 columns, each 10.53m/34.5ft high and 2.23m/7ft 4in in diameter at the base. The total height of the temple was about 20m/65ft. While the main structure was of muschelkalk limestone faced with stucco, Parian marble was used for the roof with its 102 lion's-head water-spouts and for the sculpture on the metopes and pediments. The sculpture (ca. 460 B.C.) is masterly work in the Severe style (finds in Museum).
The Temple of Zeus was built with the plunder of Helia from its wars against Pissa and Trifila. Of the ivory and gold statue of Zeus by Phidias, the philosopher Dion had said that one had to look at it to forget all his troubles.

East Pediment

On the east pediment Zeus stands in the middle, flanked by King Oinomaos, his wife Sterope, his daughter Hippodameia and Hippodameia's future husband Pelops, before the chariot race in which Oinomaos lost both his throne and his life.

West Pediment

The west pediment at the Temple of Zeus shows Zeus's son Apollo in the middle, intervening imperiously in the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs which flared up at the marriage of Theseus's friend Peirithoos with Deidameia. Here the sculptor has broken the scene up into groups of two and three, whose violent movement is in sharp contrast to the tense tranquillity of the east pediment.

Metopes

In the Temple of Zeus the metopes above the pronaos and opisthodomos depict the twelve labors of Herakles. Particularly fine are the metopes of Atlas and Augeias; some of the others are heavily restored or are casts of the originals (which were carried off by the French Expédition de Morée and are now in the Louvre).
The naos of the temple, in the pronaos of which is a mosaic of the fourth or third century B.C., had two rows of columns and housed the cult image of Zeus (after 438 B.C.). This huge chryselephantine statue, which depicted Zeus sitting on a richly decorated throne, was counted among the seven wonders of the world.

Heraion

North of the temple of Zeus at Olympia was the supposed tomb of Pelops, the Pelopion (foundations of propylon preserved). Beyond this, parallel to the temple of Zeus, is the oldest temple of Olympia, the Heraion (ca. 600 B.C.). This Doric temple of Hera had 6 x 16 columns 5.2m/17ft high, four of which have been re-erected. The shafts and capitals of the columns show considerable variety, since the original wooden columns were replaced by stone columns at different times as the need arose, so that the luxuriant Archaic types of echinus can be seen side by side with the severer forms of a later period. The naos walls were built of the limestone orthostats which have been preserved, with upper courses of mud brick. Along each side were four short cross-walls or buttresses, with columns between them. In one of the recesses so formed, on the north side, the Hermes of Praxiteles was found.

Fountain-house

Going east from the Heraion at Olympia, we pass on the left the Nymphaeum (fountain-house) built by Herodes Atticus about A.D. 160 in memory of his wife Regilla, a priestess of Demeter, and in honor of the Imperial house. Beyond this is a terrace at the foot of Mt Kronos with a row of treasuries, mostly in the form of small temples in antis, built by various Greek cities between the early sixth and the fifth century to house their votive offerings. Pausanias mentions 10. It is a striking fact that of the 10 only two (those of Sikyon and Megara) were built by cities in Greece proper. Six belonged to cities of western Greece - Syracuse, Selinus and Gela in Sicily, Sybaris and Metapontion in southern Italy and Epidamnos (Durrës) in Albania - and the remaining two to Kyrene in North Africa and Byzantium.

Treasuries

At the west end of the terrace at Olympia, immediately adjoining the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus, is a small naiskos (3.9m/13ft by 3.5m/11.5ft), with an altar in front of it. Then follow the treasuries, beginning with that of Sikyon, the last to be built (first half of fifth century B.C.), which has recently been partly rebuilt. Beyond this are the treasuries of Syracuse, Epidamnos, Byzantium, Sybaris and Kyrene, a structure which is thought to be an altar of Herakles, and finally the treasuries of Selinus, Metapontion, Megara and Gela.

Metroon

At Olympia, immediately below the terrace with the treasuries, is the site of the badly ruined Metroon (ca. 300 B.C.), a shrine of the Mother of the Gods which in Roman times was re-dedicated to the Imperial cult. Beside it are a series of bases for the "Zanes" - statues of Zeus which were financed out of fines levied for offenses against the rules of the Games. Immediately beyond them is the entrance to the Stadion (ca. 200 B.C.), the vaulting of which, still visible, was originally concealed by a propylon.

Stadium

The Stadion at Olympia, which after the erection of the Echo Hall (330-320 B.C.) was separated from the Sacred Precinct, was completely excavated by German archeologists in 1958-62 and restored to its fourth century form. On the track can be seen the starting-lines for the two-stade race (to the west) and the Stadion race (to the east). The spectators sat on earth embankments: there were no tiers of stone seating, and only the judges had their tribune on the south side and the priestess of Demeter - the only woman who was allowed to be present at the Games - on the north side.
The stadium was the largest of its kind, seating 30,000.

Philippeion

At Olympia, near the west wall of the Altis, we can see the Philippeion, a circular structure begun by Philip II of Macedon in 338 B.C. and completed by his son Alexander, for which Leochares carved five chryselephantine statues of the Macedonian royal family.
The treasury was offered by Philip after his victory at the battle of Chaeronia.

Prytaneion

The sacred grove at Altis encompassed the Prytaneion, the magistrates' residence, which was separated into two parts. In the southern part is the Altar of the Goddess Hestia with the inextinguishable firing.

Temple of Hera

Among the impressive buildings at Altis is Hera's Temple, which dates much earlier than her husband's (Zeus) and served as a perfect setting for Prexiteles' Hermes, found standing among the columns of the Temple.

Olympia Museum

The Museum at Olympia contains a large collection of bronzes, pottery and sculpture. The excavations in the Stadion in recent decades have proved extraordinarily productive, yielding many works which had originally been set up along the embankments. The forecourt of the museum, surrounded by concrete colonnades, gives a foretaste of what is to be seen inside.
The rooms are laid out round a central hall containing the pediment sculpture and metopes from the temple of Zeus. In the entrance hall (sale of tickets, literature, postcards and slides) is an interesting model of ancient Olympia.
Among exhibits in the last room are items of sporting equipment (jumpers' weights, strigils, etc.).

Bronze Collection

Room I contains bronzes of the Geometric and Archaic periods (ninth-sixth century B.C.), including elements from tripods, figures of horses, weapons and small bronzes.
Room II contains more bronzes - helmets and weapons, griffins' heads (ca. 600 B.C.), a relief of a female griffin suckling a young one (ca. 620 B.C.), a relief depicting the Lapith Kaineus between two Centaurs (ca. 630 B.C.) and a bronze breastplate with figures of Zeus and Apollo (ca. 650 B.C.). This last piece was originally set up as a trophy on the south side of the Stadion. It was published by Adolf Furtwängler in 1890 but later disappeared; then in 1969 it turned up in Basle and was bought by Marinatos for 200,000 francs. Other interesting items in this room are a limestone head of the goddess Hera (?) of around 600 B.C. and a terra-cotta acroterion from the pediment of the Heraion.
Striking items in Room IV are a terra-cotta group of Zeus and Ganymede (ca. 470 B.C.), an early classical bronze horse from a four-horse chariot and two helmets, one with an inscription recording that it was dedicated at Olympia in 490 B.C. by Miltiades, the victor of Marathon, the other a trophy of the Persian wars.

Statues

In Room III are the treasuries of Gela, with the painted terra-cotta facing of the geison (ca. 560 B.C.), and Megara (ca. 510 B.C.).
In Room V is a statue of Hermes with the boy Dionysos which is generally agreed to be an original work by Praxiteles (ca. 350 B.C.). Room VI contains the bull of Regilla, priestess of Demeter and wife of Herodes Atticus, which originally stood in the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus.

Historical Museum of Olympic Games

Today, an International Olympic Academy and the Historical Museum of Olympic Games are located in Olympia.
The museum exhibits material and literature covering the games until 1906 as well as a related stamp collection.

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