10 August 2008

Exploring the Ancient Games at Olympia

On Thursday morning the shipped docked at Katakolon, a small fishing village that is a jumping off point for those headed to the nearby site of Olympia, where the Olympics were played in ancient times.

Artifacts have been found that date the site as far back as 4300 BC, when it was a small settlement and religious sanctuary. Prehistoric divinities known in ancient times as the Titans (Gaia, Kronos, Rhea, etc.) would have been worshipped here.

During Mycenaean times (2nd millenium BC) the cult of Zeus began to form and there is evidence that games in honor of Zeus began to be played. However, it wasn't until 776 BC that the games were reorganized into the panhellenic tradition we are familar with today. The height of the ancient games was from the 5th century - 1st century BC.

After the Romans arrived, the games continued to be played, but were no longer as important as they once had been. However, in true Roman style, the building program in the area continued and impressive structures, designed to illustrate the impressiveness of the Romans, were constructed.

In 393 AD, Theodosius I, emperor of Byzantium, ended the games by imperial decree. Eventually he also ordered that any remaining monuments be destroyed by fire. Christianity had arrived and the glorification of the Greek and Roman gods could no longer continue. Earthquakes in 522 AD and 551 AD caused the complete destruction of the remaining buildings. For a short while a small settlement of Christians lived there and a partially destroyed building was turned into a Christian Basilica, but eventually it was completely abandoned and over time the winds and rain covered the ruins with earth. The site was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century.

As getting from the dock to to Olympia is not easy on your own, we had arranged to go with a tour group from the ship to the site. Our group was relatively large, about 35 people. The tour guide spoke with an extremely thick accent that was difficult to understand. Then when we arrived at the site the tour guide stated we would go to the ruins first. I was extremely disappointed because from everything I had researched, the recommendation was to visit the museum first to gain an overview that would help you envision how it once looked.

So, after a quick conversation with the guide and instructions about where and when to meet, we ditched the group and headed out on our own.

We started at the museum, where we purchased an inexpensive guide book that would lead us around the museum and through the ruins. The museum was very well done.

In addition to artifacts found on the site, such as this Bronze Shield and Helmut dating back to the second half of the 6th century BC...

And many Greek and Roman statues including...
Nike of Paionios, which was found in the Temple of Zeus and, according to the inscription, dedicated in honor of Zeus during the last year of the Archidameian War in 421 BC.

Hermes of Praxiteles, a statue which dates to the 4th century BC. In this statue, the messenger of the gods is depicted holding the infant, Dionysius.

After the museum we walked back to the ruins. Our first view was of the East Colonnade of the Gymnasium.
Originally constructed in the 2nd century BC, the gymnasium was an enormous open-air courtyard surrounded by covered colonnades and was used as a training area for the athletes.

Walking past the Gymnasium, we came upon the Philippeion.
Dedicated by Philip II to Zeus after his victory at Chaironeia in 338 BC, it was one of the loveliest and most graceful of the constructions on the site. Philip II died before it could be completed, so the monument was finished by Philip's son, Alexander the Great.

From here we had our first look at the massive Temple of Zeus, which stood in the center of the sanctuary.
Destroyed by earthquakes during Byzantine times, the columns have toppled and it is difficult to imagine what it once looked like. But it was the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World -- The Statue of Zeus by the sculptor Pheidias, who worked at Olympia from 440-430 BC.

Here is a 1572 engraving depicting what the statue may have looked like based upon ancient descriptions of it which remain.

And finally, here is the ancient stadium.

This stadium dates to the 5th century BC, when the games were at their peak and had taken on their final form. The track is 212,54 meters long and 28,50 meters wide. The stadium could seat 40,000-45,000 spectators, who sat on the grass embankments. On the left of the playing field you can still see the area reserved for the Hellanodikai, or judges and games officials.

I could go on and on and show more photos, but the post has gotten long enough as is!

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