The sanctuary of Olympia spreads around the green wooded feet of the Kronion hill, where the rivers Alpheios and Cladeos meet. The valley amongst the two rivers was in ancient times full of wild olive trees, poplars, oaks, pines and plane trees and it was these trees that gave the centre of the sanctuary the name Altis, meaning alsos (grove).
The Altis is the name given to the area in Olympia that comprises the main religious buildings, temples and votive offerings of the sanctuary. Out of the enclosure were the auxiliary buildings, priests’ houses, baths, the areas for the preparation of the athletes, guest houses along with other buildings.
The beginning of worship, as well as the mythical confrontations that took place in Olympia, are lost in the depth of the centuries. At the end of the Mycenaean era there was already an installation in the area, and in the Geometric and early Archaic periods, the first simple buildings of the sanctuary were founded.
The games began in 776 B.C. to honour Zeus. Pelops, the king of the Peloponnese was, according to mythology, their founder. The games, that, from beginning to end were dominated by religious character and austere ritual, were taking place in the area in front of the temples to start with, but later as the athletes taking part in the games, as well as the spectators increased, in well organised installations. At the same time the events were enriched in number and variety.
The innumerable offerings of the 7th-6th centuries B.C. were placed outside on trees, altars or in alcoves of the sanctuary. The most important of the offerings were bronze tripods and cauldrons of excellent quality, war loot (hanging on poles) and other art objects and instruments for the games. In the passing of centuries the architectural plan of the sanctuary takes shape, until the end of the 4th century B.C. when it is finally completed.
Olympia was always functioning as a place of political projection and the games often fell, especially during late antiquity, victim to political exploitation from important personalities like Philip II, Alexander the Great and his successors. Romans, proving their authentic Greek origin, also took part in the games, after the total submission of Greece to Rome, but by then the glamour and idealistic spirit of the games was considerably weakened.
Directly depending on the the games and the sanctuary of Olympia was the town of Elis, whose sole interest was the preparation and performance of the games.
Some of the most important monuments of the site are:
The temple of Zeus
The Doric peripteral temple, the work of the Elean architect Libon is dated at 470-456 B.C. It was erected on the southern part of the Altis, on a free section of land. The dimensions of the Doric temple were imposing, thus giving it an impressive image. On the same level as the Heraion, the Temple of Zeus was dominating the sanctuary due to its size, the stone columns on its sides and the magnificent pediments with sculptured compositions in the severe style, featuring Zeus and Apollo as its central figures. The twelve metopes of the temple depicted the labours of Hercules.
The visitor after crossing the pronaos entered into the three-aisled cella where stood the magnificent gold and ivory (chryselephantine) statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The statue was 12m high and featured the ruler of the word Zeus, sitting on a throne, holding his sceptre in his left hand and a winged Nike in his right. Near the opisthodomus of the Temple of Zeus grew a wild olive tree, the “Callistephanos Elaia” whose branches were used to make the wreaths for the winners.
The Temple of Hera (Heraion)
A Doric temple dated to the end of the 7th century B.C. The Heraion is one of the oldest examples of monumental dimensioned temples in Greek architecture. Made of wood originally it was a richly ornamented large building with a three-aisled cella where the statues of Hera and Zeus stood.
In its present day form it dates from the early 5th century B.C. The track has a length of 212.54m and a width of 28.50m. On the stadium’s southern slope there was a stone platform which was for the Hellanodikes (the judges) and opposite was the altar to Demeter Chamyne. The stadium held 45,000 spectators.
Its is made up of two buildings which date from the mid 6th and the 5th centuries B.C. Between the two buildings stood the altar of Horkios Zeus, where the athletes were sworn in before the games.
A circular peripteral building, which was begun by Philip II after the battle of Chaeroneia (338 B.C.) and was completed by Alexander the Great. It was used for the heroworship of the Macedonian dynasty. The statues were the works of art of Leochares.
This guest house was built in ca. 330 B.C. It was named after its donor and architect, Leonidas of Naxos. The building was where important foreign guest and officials stayed during their visits.
The workshop of Pheidias
Built to house work carried out on the gold and ivory statue of Zeus. In and around the workshop, tools, terra-cotta moulds and other artefacts relating to the work of the artist have been found.
Erected during the 3rd century B.C. it was used for the practice of wrestling, boxing and jumping.
Closed rectangular building with a large yard. Here the athletes practised events such as the javelin, the discus etc. Dated to the 2nd century B.C.
Dating from the beginning of the 5th century B.C. it housed the Prytans (officials of the sanctuary). The sacred Hearth with the eternal flame was privately situated within.
Megaron shaped small temples, dedicated mainly by Greek cities and colonies. There are the remains of 12 small temples, but only 5 of these are identifiable to any degree of certainty; those built by the cities of Sicyon, Selinus, Metapontium, Megara and Gelas.
Though the whole world’s interest is set to Athens, the city that houses this year the Olympic Games, at the area where the Games where born, ancient Olympia, another feast takes place this summer: the Ancient Olympia Festival. The Festival begins on July 3 with the concert of Yiannis Kotsiras, the man who sings the Olympic hymn “Pass the Flame” and ends on September 4 with a performance dedicated to ancient Olympia and the idea it supported so hard: peace. However, till then various events, equally interesting, are waiting for their visitors…
More specifically, the programme of events goes as follows:
Saturday, July 3
Concert of Yiannis Kotsiras
Monday, July 5
Direction: Nikos Mastorakis
Production: Evmolpis S.A.
Saturday, July 10
Concert of Emma Shapplin
Friday, July 16
Concert of Windsong Symphony Orchestra & Chorale
Saturday, July 17
Concert of Haris Alexiou and Manolis Famellos
Wednesday, July 21
Concert of Pantelis Thalassinos
Thursday, July 29
Tango Flamenco: Spanish flamenco and Argentinean tango with dancers Antonio Najarro
and Pascal Gaona
Saturday, July 31
Euripides’ “The Trojan Women”
Direction: Diagoras Chronopoulos
Production: Diadromi Theatre
Tuesday, August 3
Concert of Michalis Hatzigiannis
Sunday, August 8
Concert of Marinella
Tuesday, August 17
Concert of Maria Farantouri, Vassilis Papakonstantinou and Marios Frangoulis
Saturday, August 21
Aeschylus’ “Eumenides” with Anna Synodinou
Production: Greek Stage
Saturday, September 4
“Olympia-Peace” with Eleni Hatziargyri, Lida Tassopoulou and Christos Parlas
Direction: Spyros Evangelatos
Production: Spyros Evangelatos Amphi-theatre
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