Greece travel guide




Olympia Travel Guide

Olympia Attractions

To the west of the Temple of Hera, and bordering the wall of the Altis, are remains of the circular Philippeion, the first monument in the sanctuary to be built to secular glory. It was begun by Philip II after the Battle of Chaironea gave him control over the Greek mainland, and may have been completed by his son, Alexander the Great.

It is the oldest stadium around the world in where the Olympic Games of antiquity were held. In the final analysis, it is neither foundations nor columns that make sense of Olympia, but the two-hundred-meter track of the stadium itself, entered by way of a long arched tunnel. The starting and finishing lines are still there, with the judges' thrones in the middle and seating ridges banked to either side.

Temple of Zeus
Temple of Zeus erected between 470 and 456 BC, it was as large as the almost contemporary Parthenon, a fact quietly substantiated by the vast column drums littering the ground. The temple's decoration, too, rivaled the finest in Athens; partially recovered, its sculptures of Pelops in a chariot race, of Lapiths and Centaurs, and the Labours of Hercules, are now in the museum. In the cella, or main room, was exhibited the (lost) gold-and-ivory cult statue by Pheidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Here, too, the Olympian flame was kept alight, from the time of the games until the following spring - a tradition continued at an altar for the modern games.

Temple of Hera
The Temple of Hera was the first built in the Altis; prior to its completion in the seventh century BC, the sanctuary had only open-air altars, dedicated to Zeus and a variety of other cult gods. The temple, rebuilt in the Doric style in the sixth century BC, is the most complete building on the site, with some thirty of its columns surviving in part, along with a section of the inner wall. The levels above this wall were composed only of sun-baked brick, and the lightness of this building material must have helped to preserve the sculptures - most notably the Hermes of Praxiteles - found amid the earthquake ruins.

Archeological Museum
Olympia's site museum is located a couple of hundred meters north of the sanctuary; some of the signposts still refer to it as the "New Museum". It houses some of the finest Classical and Roman sculptures in the country, all superbly displayed. The most famous of the individual sculptures are the head of Hera and the Hermes of Praxiteles, both dating from the fourth century BC and discovered in the Temple of Hera. The Hermes is one of the best preserved of all Classical sculptures, and remarkable in the easy informality of its pose; it retains traces of its original paint. On a grander scale is the Nike of Paionios, which was originally ten meters high. Though no longer complete (it's well displayed in a special area), it hints at how the sanctuary must once have appeared, crowded with statuary. In the main hall of the museum is the centerpiece of the Olympia finds: statuary and sculpture reassembled from the Temple of Zeus. This includes three groups, all of which were once painted. From the cella is a frieze of the Twelve Labours of Hercules, delicately molded and for the most part identifiably preserved. The other groups are from the east and west pediments. The east, reflecting Olympian pursuits, depicts Zeus presiding over a chariot race between Pelops and Oinamaos. In the last rooms of the museum are a collection of objects relating to the games - including halteres (jumping weights), discuses, weightlifters' stones and other sporting bits and pieces. Also displayed are a number of funerary inscriptions, including that of a boxer, Camelos of Alexandria, who died in the stadium after praying to Zeus for victory or death.

The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games
The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games was opened in 2004. Today, it resides in the handsome neoclassical building that served as the site's original archaeological museum. The collection is superb; the text posted on exhibits is extensive. A number of photos and drawings emphasize the religious sanctuary. The path to the museum is steep; it is sometimes possible to get permission to drive up and drop off passengers by the museum's entrance. Each of the 12 galleries has a theme, including "The Creation of the Games," "Zeus and his Cults," "The Events," and Games at other ancient sites (Nemea, Isthmia, Delphi).

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