Suitcase and World: Olympia.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Temple of Zeus.

We all have Greece to thank for giving inspiration to what has become the world's most foremost sports competition, the Olympic Games.

The modern games were inspired by the ancient Olympic Games which, according to historical records, were held in Olympia, Greece from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD.

While the Ancient Olympic Games were closely linked to religious festivals of the cult of Zeus, there were not an integral part of a rite; they were more aimed at displaying the physical attributes of young men and women and to foster good relations between the various city-states and kingdoms of Greece which the competitors represented.

The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.  While it's not known exactly when the Ancient Games first took place though the most widely accepted inception date is 776 BC. According to mythology, Heracles and his father Zeus were the progenitors of the games and that it was Heracles who first called the games "Olympic" and that he established the custom of holding them every four years. He's also credited with coming up with a unit of measure, the stade (200m) that was used as a unit of distance for the running races.  According to historical records, the Ancient Olympic Games were initially a one day event until 684 BC, when they were extended to three days. In the 5th century B.C., the Games were extended again to cover five days.

Aerial view of Olympia with the Stadium at the top of the photo and the Hotel of Leonidas at the bottom right.

The Ancient Games featured running events, a pentathlon (consisting of a jumping event, discus and javelin throws, a foot race, and wrestling), boxing, and, pankration (primitive form of martial art combining wrestling and boxing.

Running events included the stade race which was considered the pre-eminent test of speed, covering the Olympia track from one end to the other. There was a one stade (200 meter) foot race; the diaulos (two stades/400 meter) foot race and the dolicho which was a foot race that ranged from 7 to 24 stades. Additionally, there were equestrian events including horse races and chariot races that took place in the Hippodrome, a wide, flat open space.

The Ancient Games continued until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 AD that all such *pagan* cults be banned.

Olympia is located in the western part of the Peloponnese, about 263 kilometers (163 miles) from Athens. Olympia was never established as a town but rather as an sanctuary with structures, monuments, and statues dedicated to the games and to the Greek Gods, most notably, Zeus and his wife, Hera.  Olympia is also known for the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus that used to stand there, sculpted by Pheidias, which was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Today, all that is left of Olympia are ruins which are encompassed within an area known as the Altis, or Sacred Precint.  The central part of Olympia was dominated by the majestic Temple of Zeus, with the Temple of Hera parallel to it.

A bit of trivia.  The Olympic flame of the modern day Olympic Games is lit by reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror in front of the Temple of Hera and then transported by a torch to the place where the games are held.  I always wondered where the flame for the torch relay was lit.

In the 6th century AD, earthquakes destroyed the buildings in Olympia, and it was filled with mud from the flooded rivers Kladeos and Alfeos. Landslides from Mount Kronion finally covered the whole area up.

Temple of Hera.

Ancient Olympia was discovered in 1776 and in 1829 French archaeologists started excavating the site.

Along with the archeological site, there is also a museum which from all accounts that I have read is worth going to.  It probably makes sense to visit the museum first to set the context for what we will see when we explore the archeological site.

We can't go to Greece, have a car to drive around in and not go to Olympia so a trip here will be on our itinerary!