Thursday, 15 March 2012

Ancient Olympia - The Original Venue of the Olympic Games

By Alex Moutop
Olympia is an ancient sanctuary in the prefecture of Elis Peloponnese. A magnificent archaeological site, the sanctuary has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and in the 10th century B.C, the area became a religious center for the worship of Zeus and Hera, the chief couple of the Olympian gods. The sanctuary was also the site of the Olympic Games held in honor of Zeus from the 8th century BC till the 3rd century AD, when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius decided to stop them as a pagan practice.

The sacred region of Olympia enclosed a number of buildings arranged without any particular form or order. Within the sacred enclosure, are situated the temples dedicated to Zeus and Hera. Built around 450 BC, the temple of Zeus occupied the most important position among the local and pan-Hellenic deities. The statue of Zeus, a magnificent piece of art sculpted by the 5th century sculptor, painter and architect Phedias, used to stand to a height of 43 feet and this was the most impressive statue in the ancient world. Unfortunately, not a part of this statue survives today and we know about it from narrations of ancient travellers. It is said that Phedias took about twelve years to complete it. The head of Zeus was adorned with a sculpted wreath of olive sprays, and he would hold in his right hand an ivory and gold figure of Nike, the goddess of victory. In his left hand, there was a scepter with an eagle perched on top. This statue was located in the temple of Zeus, the god who was honored during the Olympic Games.
To the east of the sanctuary was the Hippodrome, an immense oval structure used as a stadium where horse and chariot racing were held. Although very little remains of the hippodrome, scholars who have reconstructed the stadium from ancient texts and manuscripts, feel that the structure covered a total length of 1200 meters, and the track was perhaps lapped 3-12 times depending on the type of competition.
To the northern side of Olympia is located the Doric temple of Hera, wife of Zeus and the most important of the Greek female deities. The temple was destroyed in an earthquake in the 4th century AD and its ruins can be seen today. To the north of the sanctuary, lies the Prytaneion, the residence of priests and magistrates. It was also the venue for feasts and celebrations for the winners of the Olympic Games. It was here that the early Olympic flames burnt. The only structure on the sacred sanctuary dedicated to a human is the Philippeion, a circular memorial of ivory and gold, which had once housed the statues of the family of Philip II of Macedonia.
All the archeological treasures that have been excavated on the ancient site of Olympia are housed in the Archaeological Museum right next to the site. Ancient pediments, rare statues, terracotta, bronzes, a fine collection of artifacts from the Olympic Games, as well as other exhibits of immense historical significance dating from the prehistoric to the Roman period stand out in this very interesting and well-labeled museum.
More information about Ancient Olympia and the Archaeological Museum of Olympia
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