Ancient Olympia is a site that must not be missed on any tour of Greece. Located in the western Peloponnese, with easy access by road or rail, this most celebrated sanctuary of ancient Greece was built on a terrace of the Kronios hill with breathtaking views of the river Alpheios and Kladeos, not to mention the rows on rows of wild olive trees. For anyone interested in ancient history or the Olympic Games, this is the place to be as it all started here. At Olympia, you can see impressive constructions, not only of the Temple of Hera or the Temple of Zeus but also the legendary stadium where athletes competed.
While much can be accomplished here in a day tour, the self-drive traveller may equally wish to spend a couple of days in the area to take in this plethora of magnificent sites and museums at a leisurely pace.
History of the Olympic Games
The first Olympics can be traced back to 776 BC, where the names of the first Olympic winners were recorded. The games were held every four years during the full moon in August and lasted five days.
Only Greek males, hailing from all over the Mediterranean, could take part in the games. The athletes competed nude, as was customary, and showed respect for their rivals. Slaves and women were not allowed to participate in the games. However, the latter could compete in their own games, such as those at Brauron in Attica, and in 632 BC a competition for boys was introduced.
The early Olympic Games reflected Greek civilisation and any wars had to stop while officials travelled throughout Greece to proclaim the ekecheiria (stoppage of any battles) for about three months during the games. In fact, when you consider that similar Games were also held periodically every 4 or 5 years at Eleusis, Epidaurus, Nemea, Amphiareion, Sparta and other venues, it’s a wonder that there was any time left for fighting at all!
Initially the games only had one event – the sprint race, but in the following centuries other events were added, such as, wrestling, boxing, the pentathlon and the pankration (a form of boxing with no rules!). Winning an event afforded great honour to an athlete who was awarded a wreath made of olive branches and great privileges were given not only to the athlete himself but also to his family and home town as well.
Due to the connection of the Games with Zeus (a pagan god), they were not approved of by early Christians. Thus, they were gradually brought to a halt in 393 AD by order of the Christian Byzantine emperor Theodosius I.
1500 years later in 1896 the modern Olympics were revived with the help of French baron Pierre de Coubertin. Since then, with the exception of World War II, the Olympics have taken place every four years in different countries. Paying homage to their ancient roots, prior to each Olympic Games, a flame is lit in Ancient Olympia in the temple of Hera. From Olympia, the flame travels by relay to the country holding the Games, where it burns for the two-week duration of the event.
Ancient Olympia, like Epidaurus and many other ancient sites, was not constructed as a town but as a healing sanctuary devoted to Zeus. Geographically, this made an ideal location in the fertile plains of the Alpheios and Kladeos rivers, accessible both by land and by sea from the nearby ports on the north-west Peloponnese. It can be divided into several periods starting with the Geometric and Archaic periods. Immense changes were made about 700 BC when they levelled the ground and dug wells to serve the sanctuary. Evidence shows building at the site started around 600 BC with the Temple of Hera, followed by the secular structures and athletic arenas. The original stadium was built approximately 560 BC, which was revamped about 40 years later when a variety of events were added to the Games.
The Classical period was the golden age of Olympia (5th-4th Century BC). This is when the Temple of Zeus was constructed on a larger and grander scale than ever before. Then came the Hippodrome where chariot races were held and the Prytaneion where the Prytaneis (executives) or in this case the priests sat.
The Hellenistic Period saw the construction of the Phillippeon (4th C BC) and a century later the Leonidaion (the largest building) was erected to accommodate important guests. This was followed by the Palestra, Gymnasion and bath houses.
The Roman Period gave access to citizens of the Roman Empire to the games, which led to the erection of new buildings, such as the Nymphaion (Exedra), and an aqueduct. Restoration of the Temple of Zeus began as well construction of new bath houses, replacing the older Greek ones.
After several earthquakes causing considerable damage to the site, along came invading tribes who looted materials from the site. Despite this, the Olympics continued until 393 BC when emperor Theodosius put an end to the games.
The Site Today
Let’s begin our tour with the Temple of Hera, dedicated to Hera (queen of the Greek gods), which is one of the oldest temples in Greece. Located in the north-west corner of the precinct. Today it is the site where the Olympic flame is lit to be relayed to host country for the Olympic Games. Excavations of the site unearthed a marble head of Hera and a statue of Hermes both of which can be viewed at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.
Situated to the right of temple is the Nymphaion, which was donated by Herodes Atticus during the Roman period. The Nymphaion contained water fountains and basins which drew water from a spring in the Altis.
Next on the tour should be the Temple of Zeus (king of the twelve major Greek gods). Although in ruins today, one can easily imagine the past grandeur of this temple. According to Pausanias, the temple was 20.7 metres tall, with a breadth of 29 metres and 70.1 metres long. It would have had to be so big to house the famous statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The gold and ivory statue was made by the sculptor Phidias in his workshop at Olympia and took him approximately 12 years to complete.
Take a stroll down to the Olympic Stadium, located to the east of the temple of Zeus, which was the site of many sporting events dedicated to Zeus were held. The stadium could hold up to 50,000 spectators, who would sit on mud seats whereas the judges sat on a stone platform called the Exedra.
Retrace your steps back to the Temple of Zeus, and directly opposite is Phidias’ Workshop. After finishing the sculptures for the Acropolis in Athens, Phidias travelled to Olympia to work on his statue of Zeus. The workshop later became a place of worship where sacrifices to the various gods were made.
Finally, you should end your tour of the ancient site with the Palaestra and Gymnasium, located on the north-west of the sanctuary. The Palaestra is believed to have been devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes while the Gymnasium was the area for runners and pentathlon athletes could train. The Gymnasium was an open air quadrangle surrounded by columns of the Doric order. Unfortunately, only the south and east sides have survive as the rest were destroyed by the river Kladeos.
Our tour will include visits to the two museums on opposite sides of the site. The oldest being the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games, which was the first archaeological museum in Olympia (and one of the first in Greece). It is also known as the Syngreion Building because it was founded in 1886 by the shipping magnate A. Syngros. Its exhibits include artefacts dated from Minoan civilization (3200-1450 BC), Mycenaean civilization (1600-1100 BC), and up to 324 AD. Interestingly, this was designed to replicate the shape of the Temple of Zeus on the site, though had to be sized down from the original temple’s dimensions to match the benefactor’s budget!
Near the main site entrance, we will find the new Archaeological Museum, where the site finds and those of the surrounding area were rehoused after earthquake damage to the old museum (Syngreion Building). This is home to numerous renowned exhibits, which include:
- Praxiteles’ Hermes – The image of the god leaning against the trunk of a tree and holding the infant Dionysos. (… though some speculate that this may not have been the work of Praxiteles himself, due to the imperfect finish on Hermes’ rear end, which is uncharacteristic of the sculptor.)
- The Nike of Paeonius
- Zeus carrying Ganymedes
- Pediments of the Temple of Zeus
- The helmet of Miltiades (the Athenian general who led the troops and lost his own life at the Battle of Marathon)
- Vast collections of terracottas (prehistoric, Archaic and Classical periods), bronzes, Archaic to Roman sculptures, artefacts from the Olympic Games.
For those who have time to linger a few minutes longer, take a relaxing stroll around the herb garden next to the museum, which hosts assorted plants and shrubs all native to the area. A reminder of the natural beauty which originally made this the perfect location to build a sanctuary and worship the wonders of nature itself.
For the more energetic, there is a small, rugged path which winds to the top of Kronios hill, affording impressive views of the site and surrounding plains – and an excellent viewpoint from which to savour the sunset over the distant hills. Having worked up an appetite with the day’s explorations, we will have a chance to sample the fare of a traditional taverna in the village of Olympia.
1. Northwest Propylon, 2. Prytaneion, 3. Philippeion, 4. Temple of Hera, 5. Pelopion, 6. Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus, 7. Metroon, 8. Treasuries, 9. Crypt (arched way to the stadium), 10. Stadium, 11. Echo Stoa, 12. Building of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, 13. Hestia stoa, 14. Hellenistic building, 15. Temple of Zeus, 16. Altar of Zeus, 17. Ex-voto of Achaeans, 18. Ex-voto of Mikythos, 19. Nike of Paeonius, 20. Gymnasion, 21. Palaestra, 22. Theokoleon, 23. Heroon, 24. Pheidias’ workshop and paleochristian basilica, 25. Baths of Kladeos, 26. Greek baths, 27. and 28. Hostels, 29. Leonidaion, 30. South baths, 31. Bouleuterion, 32. South stoa, 33. Villa of Nero.
Treasuries. I. Sicyon, II. Syracuse, III. Epidamnus(?), IV. Byzantium(?), V. Sybaris(?), VI. Cyrene(?), VII. Unidentified, VIII. Altar(?), IX. Selinunte, X. Metapontum, XI. Megara, XII. Gela.
Telephone: +30 26240 29119
Tickets: Full: €12, Reduced: €6
For the period April 1st – October 31st combined, individual ticket can be purchased for the price of 12 euros (reduced ticket € 6) and includes the visit to the following areas: 1.Archaeological Site of Olympia, 2. Archaeological Museum of Olympia 3. Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity and 4. Museum of the History of the Excavations in Olympia. The ticket is valid for one day. There are no longer tickets available only for a single area (e.g. The Archaeological Site of Olympia)
Special ticket package: Full: €12, Reduced: €6
During the period November 1st – March 31st, the price of the single ticket for all the above mentioned sites is reduced by 50% for all visitors and cost 6 euros.
Free admission days:
6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
18 April (International Monuments Day)
18 May (International Museums Day)
The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st
From 01.11.2016: Monday – Friday: 08.00 – 15.00
Weekends and holidays: Closed
Last admission (all days): 15′ before closing
Amenities for the physically challenged:
Parking, toilet, ramps at both museums.