A day’s visit to the birthplace of the Olympic Games will not suffice, so much is there to absorb. The greatness of the ancient Greek history never ceases to astound us. In this corner of the Peloponnese, the father of gods and men was worshipped; this is the site of Zeus’ most magnificent sanctuary.
The centrepiece of the shrine, his gold and ivory statue, crafted by Pheidias, stood 13.5m tall and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It no longer exists but you will be able to admire firsthand the famous Hermes by Praxiteles. Both the site and the museum offer a luminous picture of the splendour, the glory and the breadth of a civilisation that gave so much to the world. You’re on the fast track for a time-travel adventure through history, through the glory of Ancient Greece. On your mark. Get set. Go!
What to do in Ancient Olympia
The Olympic Games, all for the pleasure of Zeus
London, Beijing, Athens… Retracing the history of the Olympic Games back to 776 BC, you arrive at the starting line, where it all began in this gentle, wooded valley of the Alpheios River in the Peloponnese, where Zeus’ most important sanctuary was located. In his honour, every four years, this was the scene of an event in which the whole of the Greek-speaking world took part.
The Olympic Games were more than athletic competitions. They were panhellenic festivals and took precedence over everything else occurring at that time, even wars. During the period of the Games and allowing for travel time, any hostilities between the normally fractious Greek city-states was suspended and the Olympic Truce imposed. Broken only twice in a thousand years of Games, this was an accomplishment we would do well to emulate.
A tour of the Ancient Stadium of the Olympic Games
One of the most significant archaeological sites in Greece, the ancient stadium was where the most important competitions took place. Pass under the arched entrance and you’re in a place where countless VIPs and ordinary people (but not women) rooted for their heroes. The stadium you see today was built around the same time as the temple of Zeus, the 5th century BC.
The hippodrome for chariot races lay to the south of the stadium. Still standing are ruins left from a later age: baths and villas, like the one Roman emperor Nero had constructed as a private residence when he attended. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Olympic Games gradually lost their prestige since they were considered a pagan festival. They ceased completely in 393 AD when the emperor Theodosius I decreed them unlawful. Olympia never regained the glory and allure it had enjoyed as host of the Games.
But on 18 August 2004, when Athens hosted the Modern Games, those wonderful years came back. The Stadium in Olympia witnessed a reenactment of an ancient sport, the shot put. Both men and women competed, some 1,611 years after the last Games took place there. And of course, Olympia is still the place where the Olympic Flame is lit each Olympiad.
The Hermes of Praxiteles, a peerless masterpiece
In Olympia’s archaeological museum you’ll come face to face with one of the greatest marble sculptures of all time, Praxiteles’ Hermes, one of the most important exhibits in the museum. The god is leaning against the trunk of a tree. In his left arm, he’s cradling the infant Dionysos.
It is the epitome of Greek beauty, balance and craftsmanship. Apart from the Hermes, the museum contains dozens of other finds from the site, dating from prehistoric times to the early Christian era, when the Games were outlawed. Look out for the Nike of Paionios and the monumental friezes from the Temple of Zeus, which depict the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos and the fight between Lapiths and Centaurs.
Guide to the archaeological site of Olympia
The Sanctuary of Zeus was called the Altis or ‘sacred wood’. A walled area, it enclosed many monuments and buildings beside the Temple of Zeus. You’ll see arcades, smaller temples, statue pedestals. Some of the structures were residential, others had an administrative or ceremonial function. Zeus’ temple stood at its heart. Can you imagine being faced with his enormous statue, carved from ivory, gold flashing in the sunlight? Could there have been any doubt that he ruled over heaven and earth?
Images of Ancient Olympia
Hidden gems of Ancient Olympia
More monuments, more history
Don’t forget to have a look at the other ruins: the Temple of Hera, the oldest and best preserved temple at Olympia, the Bouleuterion, the Prytaneion, the Gymnasion, the Palaistra, Pheidias’ workshop, the Leonidaion, the Philippeion, the Echo Colonnade, the pedestal of Paionios’s Nike, the Nymphaion. Each one has a special aura and its own story.
Museum of the History of the Olympic Games
Here you’ll find 463 works from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and from other museums around Greece.
The Ancient Olympia Festival in the Peloponnese
Plan your visit to coincide with the festival. An annual event, it includes excellent theatrical, music and dance performances.