Archaeological Site of Olympia
The site of Olympia, in a valley in the Peloponnesus, has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the 10th century B.C., Olympia became a centre for the worship of Zeus. The Altis – the sanctuary to the gods – has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces from the ancient Greek world. In addition to temples, there are the remains of all the sports structures erected for the Olympic Games, which were held in Olympia every four years beginning in 776 B.C.
Olympia bears exceptional testimony to the ancient civilizations of Peloponnesos, in terms of both duration and quality. The first human settlements date back to prehistoric times; the Middle Helladic and Mycenaean periods are represented at the site. Consecrated to Zeus, the Altis is a major sanctuary from the 10th century BC to the 4th century AD corresponding to the zenith of Olympia. A Christian settlement survived for a time at the site of the ruins of the great Pan-Hellenic sanctuary.
In north-western Peloponnesos the archaeological site of Olympia at the foot of the Kronion Hill stretches over a triangular alluvial terrace at the confluence of the Alpheios and the Kladeos. In this area of very ancient settlement, religious centres of worship succeeded one another during the Hellenic period: those to Kronos, Gala, and other Chtonian divinities, those to Pelops, the hero who gave his name to Peloponnesus, and those to Hippodamia, whose hand Pelops won in a chariot race against Oenomaos, her father. Olympia became a centre of worship to Zeus in the 10th century BC.
The name Olympia, which described the wooded valley where the site was located, referred to the sacred mountain of Olympus, the habitual residence of Zeus. Placed under the protection of the cities of Pisa and later Elis, the Olympian sanctuary experienced an enormous renown in the 8th century BC, with the Pan-Hellenic games which were held every fifth year. Beginning in 776 BC, the games regularly brought together athletes. Later, orators, poets and musicians also came to celebrate Zeus.
The Altis (the sanctuary to the gods) includes the ruins of the two principal temples: the Temple of Hera (6th century BC) and the Temple of Zeus (5th century BC). The sanctuary contained one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces of the ancient Mediterranean world. Many have been lost, such as the Olympian Zeus, a gold-and-ivory cult statue which was probably executed by Pheidias between 438 and 430 BC. Other masterpieces have survived: large votive Archaic bronzes, sculptures of tympanums and metopes from the Temple of Zeus, and the Hermes by Praxiteles, found along with its base in the Temple of Hera.
To the north stood a row of Archaic Treasuries (6thand 5th centuries BC), several of which were built by residents of the distant Greek colonies of Selinus, Cyrene, and Byzantium. More recent structures - the Metroon and the Echo Colonnade (4th century BC), the Philippeion in honour of the victory at Chaeronea in 338 BC, and the Exedra of Herodes Atticus (157-60 AD)- gradually added to the complex topography of the sanctuary whose precinct overlooks an area of prehistoric settlements. The density of buildings outside the Altis is even greater: the built-up zone combines official housing and assembly rooms for the clergy and administrators, sports structures, thermal baths, and lodgings and accommodation for guests. To the north-west the Palaestra and the Gymnasium (3rd century BC), and to the east the old Stadium, rebuilt during the 1st century AD and remodelled in 1961-62, highlight a landscape of ruins of majestic beauty. Flooding of the Alpheios carried the Hippodrome away: only its original location is known.
The influence of the monuments of Olympia has been considerable. To mention just three examples, the Temple of Zeus, built in 470-457 BC, is a model of the great Doric temples constructed in southern Italy and in Sicily during the 5th century BC; the Nike by Paeonios, sculptured around 420 BC, so lastingly influenced iconographic allegories of Victory that neoclassical art of the 19th century is still much indebted to it; with reference to the Roman period, the Olympian Palaestra is undoubtedly the typological reference made by Vitruvius in De Architectura.
Olympia is directly and tangibly associated with an event of universal significance. The Olympic Games were celebrated regularly beginning in 776 BC. The Olympiad - the four-year period between two successive celebrations falling every fifth year - became a chronological measurement and system of dating used in the Greek world. The significance of the Olympic Games demonstrates the lofty ideals of Hellenic humanism: peaceful and loyal competition between free and equal men, who are prepared to surpass their physical strength in a supreme effort, with their only ambition being the symbolic reward of an olive wreath.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC