“Olympia Ancient City is the birthplace of the first Olympic Games”
one of the most important sanctuaries of ancient Greece
Olympia Ancient City is the birthplace of the Olympic Games and Zeus’ sacred land. Olympia Ancient City has cultivated ideals since ancient times. It was never just the games, but also the honor, the peace, the struggle and the body – all in one. Visiting the Archaeological Site and Museum in Olympia, you will walk in one of the most important Sanctuaries of Ancient Greece.
Situated in the landscape of Ilia, by the foot of Mt. Kronion (Kronios Lofos), Olympia invites you to take part in the history of Greece. This place is connected to many gods and myths. There are different versions on how the Olympic Games got started. According to one version, this was where Zeus struggled with his father Cronus, finally beating him and seizing the throne. As a memory of his victory, Zeus organized the games.
Another myth tells us that it was the five brothers who brought up Zeus on Crete that started them. They raced in Olympia, and the oldest brother Heracles (not the hero) crowned the winner with an olive wreath.
Yet another story tells us about King Oenomaus of Pisa, whose daughter Hippodameia had reached marrying age. This worried the King, since an oracle had told him that he would die by the hand of his son-in-law. Due to this he conceived a wicked plan that would prevent Hippodameia from ever getting married. He made an announcement that any suitor would have to compete with him in a chariot race. If the suitor won, he would get Hippodameia’s hand, but if he lost, he would die. So, the races begun.
Despite the risk of losing their life, many suitors challenged the King, not knowing that the evil King had Ares’ invincible horses. It was after 33 suitors were beaten, and killed,that Pelops arrived. As soon as she saw him, Hippodameia fell desperately in love. As a mater of fact she conspired with the King’s charioteer Myrtilos to help Pelops. Myrtilos sabotaged the King’s chariot by pulling out the bolt that held one of the wheels in its place. So, after the race had started the chariot fell apart in the first turn. The King was caught in his horses’ reins and dragged to death. Pelops and Hippodameia married, and the games were to be held in order to remember the day Pelops won over the sly king.
The area of Olympia was already inhabited in the beginning of the 2nd Millennium BC, if not earlier. There was a cult here before Zeus, probably to Gaea. Tradition holds that the first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC, but they might actually have started way before then. In fact the games were a peace treaty between Sparta and Elis. Moreover, it was soon decided that all Greek states could take part in them as long as they respected the sacred truce that must be held during the games.
This period of peace was for a month at first. Later on because so many states took part and people from all over came to watch, it was extended to three months. The games were always during summer. Notably, this sacred truce gave the kings and leaders from all over Greece a chance to meet unarmed. Dueto this Olympia became an important place for political discussions and trade. It also enhanced the feeling of unity amongst the Greeks, along with the language and religion.
Olympia was renovated many times, and new buildings were added through the ages. Famous people came here to watch the games, such and Plato and Aristotle, and before them, in the 6th century BC, Thales of Miletus had died of a heat stroke here. Gelon and Hieron of Syracusae were to compete in the games, and so was Alcibiades, Alexander the Great and Nero.
Slaves and women, especially married ones, were strictly forbidden to watch the games. Furthermore if a woman was caught as a spectator, she was immediately thrown off Mt. Typaeon. Nevertheless women could compete and besides that, the Heraia were also held here. Heraia were foot races for young maids in the area. Barbarians were allowed to watch, but not to compete.
A competitor had to be a free, unpunished Greek. On top of that he had to have trained for the games in his home for ten months and for one month in Olympia. Winners did not receive any money, but were greatly honored. The prize was an olive wreath from Zeus holy tree. Also, the winner was allowed to raise a victory statue. In addition in his hometown he would usually be given free meals for the rest of his life. Extraordinarily it is said that a town with a champion would tear down its wall, since they no longer needed one with such an athlete as a citizen.
What is more if an athlete was caught cheating, perhaps through bribing or poisoning, he was forced to finance a statue of Zeus. On the statue his and his family’s name would be put and what he had done. Then the statue was placed near the entrance of the stadium, so that the athletes would see them before the games started as a reminder of what could happen.
From the year 472 the games were held during five days in stead of the original one. On the first day the competitors would register, take a sacred oath that they had trained for ten months and that they would respect the rules. Also, on this day there was a competition between the heralds. The horse races and Pentathlon were held on the second day. Then, on the third day the track races took place. On the fourth there was wrestling, boxing and Pancrateon. And on the fifth day the prizes were handed out, with celebrations following.
During the Classical period the great temple of Zeus was built. Not only Olympia was his sanctuary, but also he had an oracle here. Inside the temple stood the Statue of Zeus, made by Phidias. We only know about this statue through coins and descriptions. Amazingly it was supposedly 13,5 meters (37,5 feet) high. It pictured a sitting Zeus with the goddess Nike in his right hand and a scepter in his left. The statue was made of gold and ivory, and was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It disappeared towards the end of the 4th century AD.
The greatness of Olympia was now bigger than ever, and the victory against the Persians had enhanced the feeling of unity amongst the Greeks even further. Many new buildings were added, and the baths from this period are the oldest in the world: complete with a swimming pool and a sauna.
In the 4th century BC the whole stadium was moved to the East and slopes were made on the sides for the spectators. Alexander the Great completed his fathers building Philippeion and competed himself during the games. He didn’t win, but proved to be a good loser.
The Romans conquered Greece in the 2nd century BC and they took many of the treasures of Olympia with them. Sulla even tried to relocate the games to Rome, but failed. Even so, the Olympic Games lost their importance and were just held for show. During Augustus reign Olympia’s status was enhanced again. Statues of the emperor and his family and descendants were to be put in the sanctuary.
Nero came to Greece in 67 AD and took part in the horse races. Although he fell off his chariot he had himself declared winner, and then took many statues with him.
Herodes Atticus was to build a nympheum here, and its fountain provided the area with drinking water.
Because Germanic tribes ravaged Athens and the Peloponnese, many buildings were torn down in the 3rd century, and the materials were used to build fortifications in Olympia. They never actually came here, but in the 4th century the games were banned by emperor Theodosius. The whole sanctuary was shut down in 426. One of the main reasons was the Olympic Games were now considered pagan by the Christian emperor, and the competitors nakedness highly immoral.
In the 6th century earthquakes destroyed the buildings in Olympia. Furthermore it was filled with mud from the flooded rivers Kladeos and Alfeos. Landslides from Mt. Kronion finally covered the whole area up. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. The irony of it all is that the ancient games would stop the wars, but the modern ones have been stopped by wars on a few occasions.
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia is one of the most important museums in Greece. It presents the long history of the most celebrated sanctuary of antiquity, the sanctuary of Zeus, father of both gods and men, where the Olympic Games were born.
The museum’s permanent exhibition contains finds from the excavations in the sacred precinct of the Altis dating from prehistoric times to the Early Christian period. Among the many precious exhibits the sculpture collection for which the museum is most famous such as Hermes of Praxiteles one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art dated to ca. 330 B.C., Nike of Paionios dates from 421 B.C., Zeus and Ganymedes. It holds also the bronze collection with exhibist like the Bronze breast-plate with incised decoration, The Helmet of Miltiades, Bronze battering-ram, Bronze horse. This is the richest collection of its type in the world. There is also a large terracottas collection. These two collections are especially noteworthy.
The Museum Building comprises exhibition rooms, auxiliary spaces and storerooms. The vestibule and twelve exhibition rooms contain objects excavated in the Altis. The auxiliary spaces, such as caf, lavatories, are located in the museum’s east wing. Furthermore a separate building between the museum and the archaeological site houses a book and souvenir shop. Finally, part of the east wing and the basement are dedicated to storage and conservation of terracottas, bronze, stone, mosaics and minor objects.
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia, supervised by the Seventh Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, was reorganized in 2004 to meet modern museological standards.
The Olympic Torch Today is ignited several months before the opening celebration of the Olympic Games at the site of the Ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. Eleven women, representing the Vestal Virgins, perform a ceremony in which the torch is kindled by the light of the Sun, its rays concentrated by a parabolic mirror.
The Olympic Torch Relay ends on the day of the opening ceremony in the central stadium of the Games. The final carrier is often kept unannounced until the last moment, and is usually a sports celebrity of the host country. The final bearer of the torch runs towards the cauldron, often placed at the top of a grand staircase, and then uses the torch to start the flame in the stadium. Notably, it is considered a great honor to be asked to light the Olympic Flame. After being lit, the flame continues to burn throughout the Olympics, and is extinguished on the day of the closing ceremony.
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