Greek Guide


The City of Olympia and the history of the Olympics

Olympia is the birthplace of the Olympic games and was one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world. It's located in a truly magical setting, on the western edge of the Greek Peloponnese. The ruins of once magnificent temples stand amid beautiful shady groves of towering pines, cypresses and olive trees. A stroll along the athletics track where the first games were held in 776 BC is enough to bring goose bumps to the flesh of the hardest of cynics.

When it comes to Greek history, it's often hard to unravel the myths from the hard facts. According to legend the first Olympic games involved the gods pitting their might and cunning against the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. Human strength was worshipped here as nowhere else in the world.

It's an historic fact that the first official games were staged here in the 8th century BC and continued every four years for the next 10 centuries when they were banned by the Romans.

By the 6th century BC the games had acquired unrivalled prestige and glory. Athletes came from as far afield as Asia Minor and Italy and the entire Greek world observed a truce to enable the participants to journey safely through the normally warlike city states.

The games were held in honour of Olympian Zeus and the sanctuary and sports complex were named after Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. The fantastic Temple of Zeus was constructed at the heart of the sanctuary a magnificent structure on which no expense was spared. It was painted gold, red and blue and inside was a 13 metre gold and ivory statue of Zeus seated on an ivory and ebony throne. The statue, regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, was destroyed by fire in 462 AD.

These days young tourists race up and down the grass track where athletes once performed naked to show off their perfect physiques. The priceless treasures of Olympia's Archaeological Museum include stone and bronze weights and discuses used in ancient times.

Thank goodness women can these days enter the stadium any female who tried to watch the games during their first 1,0000 years was thrown from a nearby mountain as a punishment!

The games were banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393 AD as he feared the influence of the popular pagan festival on the Christian masses. In 426 AD Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the sanctuary and in the 6th century a series of earthquakes added to the ravages of time and man.

Thankfully successive flooding from the nearby River Alfios buried the sacred site under a thick layer of mud and it lay hidden and protected until 1875 when archaeologists rediscovered the city of Olympia. Visit the two local museums to marvel at the many wonderful finds which have been unearthed. Star attractions include fabulous sculptures from the Temple of Zeus, the 4th century BC figure of the god Hermes carrying his infant half brother Dionysos and some wonderful bronze heads of snarling griffins.

The discovery of the site (which is still surrendering more archaeological treasures even today) prompted the French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin to revive the games in 1896 though their original spirit of peace between nations has been sadly and dramatically flouted on many occasions.

The "eternal flame" which once burned in the holy sanctuary of Altis is now lit here every four years by Greek actresses dressed as priestesses before being transferred to the city hosting the games.

Even if you're heading for the Greek islands it's well worth taking a detour to this truly awe inspiring site. It's a four hour drive west of Athens and if you take the scenic route right across the centre of the Peloponnese you'll be treated to some beautiful mountain scenery and lovely traditional villages.

The town of Olympia is basically one street packed with hotels, souvenir shops and tavernas. The ancient site is about 15 minutes walk from the town and if you're travelling by car there's ample parking right alongside it.