“If the present-day archaeological site of Ancient Olympia, the former celebrated sanctuary of Greek supreme god Zeus and the birthplace of the Olympic Games, doesn’t win gold for being Greece’s most redolent ancient site then it would at the very least be assured of a podium finish.”
Image || A copy of Myron’s Discobolus in the Museum of The History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity, Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece. May 7, 2017.
Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece
If the present-day archaeological site of Ancient Olympia, the former celebrated sanctuary of Greek supreme god Zeus and the birthplace of the Olympic Games, doesn’t win gold for being Greece’s most redolent ancient site then it would at the very least be assured of a podium finish.
dMb Country Overview - Greece
Region – Southeastern Europe/The Balkans (dMb tag: The Balkans). Capital – Athens. Population – 10.8 million. Official Language – Greek. Currency – Euro (€) GDP (nominal) per capita – US$21,000 Political System – Unitary parliamentary republic. EU Member? – Yes (10th member joined January 1981). UN Member? – Yes (founding member joined October 1945). G20 Member? – No. Size – 132,000 km² (Europe’s 15th largest country is approximately half the size of Ecuador, twice the size of Sri Lanka, and roughly the same size as the US southern states of Alabama and Louisiana. Topography – A mountainous interior (80% of Greece is mountainous), a long and convoluted coastline, and hundreds of offshore islands. Independence – 1830 from the Ottoman Empire following 1821 to 1830 Greek War of Independence. Brief History – From the eighth century BC, the Greeks were organised into various independent city-states, known as poleis (singular polis), which spanned the entire Mediterranean region and the Black Sea. Philip of Macedon united most of the Greek mainland in the fourth century BC, with his son Alexander the Great rapidly conquering much of the ancient world, from the eastern Mediterranean to India. Greece was annexed by Rome in the second century BC, becoming an integral part of the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire, which adopted the Greek language and culture. The Greek Orthodox Church, which emerged in the first century AD, helped shape modern Greek identity and transmitted Greek traditions to the wider Orthodox World. After falling under Ottoman dominion in the mid-15th century, Greece emerged as a modern nation state in 1830 following a war of independence. UNESCO World Heritage sites – 18. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogan – All Time Classic. Famous For – Endless coastline and beaches; shipping; democracy (born here); a classical and hallowed past; ouzo; sun-drenched islands; Alexander the Great; the Olympics; being the cradle of Western civilisation; food (tzatziki, feta, souvlaki, moussakas, yogurt, grapes, olives and olive oil); economic collapse & austerity.
Highlights – Cyclades island-hopping and the remnants of all that ancient history (Greece boasts four millennia of sun-bleached ruins, artefacts, and architecture). Greece Titbits – At nearly 14,000 km (8,500 miles), Greece has the 11th longest coastline in the world; Greece is considered the cradle of Western civilisation, being the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, Western literature, historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematical principles, Western drama, and the Olympic Games (the country’s rich historical legacy is reflected in part by its 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as of 2017); the Greek economy is the largest in the region with an economy larger than all other Balkan countries combined, this despite its well-documented economic battering and subsequent austerity measures.
Visits – 2 (May 2008 and April/May 2017). Where I Went/What I Saw – Thessaloniki; The Cyclades (Santoríni, Paros, Mykonos, Delos, Tinos); Zakynthos/Zante; Olympia; Sparta; Mystras; Athens.
– On display in the archaeological site of Ancient Olympia
Ancient Olympia & The Olympics
It’s a quadrennial event of huge significance today, one of the largest sporting events on the planet, but the very first Olympiad, aka Olympic Games, were held here in Olympia in 776 BC. An ancient Panhellenic celebration held in honour of the supreme Greek god Zeus, who had been worshipped on the site since as early as 1000 BC, the games were undoubtedly the Ancient World’s biggest sporting event in which male competitors would compete naked (the modern word gymnasium derives from the Ancient Greek word for naked) in the likes of foot racing, wrestling, chariot racing and pentathlon, the most revered of all Olympiad events. Staged, and just as it is today, every 4 years (or olympiad, which became a unit of time in historical chronologies), the games pitted against each other the best athletes from various Greek city-states, who would suspend any hostilities (the Sacred Truce) to allow the games to take place, for the paltry prize of a simple wild-olive wreath, the kotinos: status gained as an Olympic winner was a much more coveted prize, the highest honour bestowed upon a mortal. The games would reach their zenith by 576 BC and would continue to grow in size and importance over the course of a millennia, that before their abolition in AD 393, after 1,169 years of continuous competition, by the killjoy Roman Emperor Theodosius I – a result of religious dogma, Theodosius had recently converted to Christianity and suspended the games as part of a general crackdown on public pagan festivities.
– UNESCO commenting on the Archaeological Site of Olympia
Ordered destroyed by imperial decree by Theodosius II in AD 426, little remains today of Ancient Olympia’s magnificent temples, athletic facilities, and other structures dedicated to deities, over 70 in total (a subsequent barbarian invasion and various earthquakes down through the years, especially in AD 522 and AD 551, haven’t helped the site’s cause either). It is widely believed that flooding, attributed to the region’s Alfiós (Alpheus) and Kládhios rivers and/or by tsunami, led to the total abandonment of the area in the 7th century. Covered by alluvial deposits of up to 8 meters deep, the site was lost to history until it was re-discovered in 1766 by Englishman Richard Chandler. The first site excavations, by French archaeologists, took place in 1829. However, what we see today is as a result of excavations by archaeologists from the German Archaeological Institute at Athens that began in the 1870s. As with most such sites from antiquity, you need a sense of imagination to fully appreciate it, although some rather grandiose groupings of ancient stone, a clearly defined site plan, great explanatory signage, and the site’s awesome Archaeological Museum of Olympia all combine to adequately convey the sanctuary’s former glory.
The centrepiece of any modern Olympic Games is also the natural focus of the Ancient Olympia site. A trailblazer par excellence, the void that is the site of the Ancient Stadium was to be my highlight of Ancient Olympia.
Leave time for these. No visit to Ancient Olympia is complete without a visit to the on-site museums; visiting them in conjunction with the ruins helps to put the ancient site into full and fascinating perspective. I found time to take in two of the three museums (missing out only on the Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia), the Archaeological Museum of Olympia and the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity, the latter now occupying the original 1880s building of the former.
The oldest of the Ancient Olympia trio of museums, the awesome Archaeological Museum of Olympia was established in the early 1880s to house artifacts being unearthed in the surrounding Ancient Olympia site. At the time it was the only museum in Greece outside of Athens. Today it’s one of the country’s principle museums, its present 12 rooms displaying artifacts from over 3,500 years of history, from around the 3rd millennium BC when humans first settled in Olympia to the twilight of Ancient Olympia in the 7th century AD. The museum is renowned for its sculptures and its ancient Greek bronze collection, the richest in the world – far more bronze artefacts have been uncovered at Ancient Olympia than at any other ancient site.
Running on fumes coming around the final bend and into the home straight of my Ancient Olympia marathon, I somehow found the time and energy to take in the awesome Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity. I didn’t think I could possibly absorb any more history, any more antiquity. But it just kept on coming. And again it was fascinating.
– Reproduced from a display in the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity
Signing Off | The Complete Olympia Gallery