Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece (the highest peak is 2,918 m. above sea level), rises on the border of Macedonia and Thessaly, between the provinces of Pieria and Larissa. Owing to its specific microclimate, which is partly due to the short distance from the sea and the steep increase in height above sea level, it stands out for its great diversity in terrain, climate and vegetation.
The shape of the massif and the majestic peaks, covered in fog and low-hanging clouds, which often bring storms, in conjunction with its diverse and changeable natural beauty, have always induced awe and admiration. In this eerie landscape, the ancient Greeks placed the residence of the Twelve Gods of Olympus (with Zeus at their head), the Muses and the Graces. There, according to Hesiod, Zeus fought Cronus and the Titans and, after winning, settled there and became lord all the gods, demigods and humans. The myths and traditions collected by Homer and Hesiod were passed on throughout the ancient Greek and Roman world, making Olympus the epicentre of ancient Greek mythology and a symbol of Greek civilization.
According to ancient Greek tradition, the twelve gods lived in the gorges – or ‘folds of Olympus’ as Homer calls them – where their palaces were situated. On the highest peak was the throne of Zeus.
On the rounded and hospitable summit of Agios Antonios, south of Mytikas, an open-air sanctuary has been uncovered - the oldest finds dating to the Hellenistic period - which has been identified as the Temple of Olympian Zeus mentioned by ancient writers. This is probably the sanctuary Plutarch was referring to when, in the 2nd century A.D., he wrote that regularly occurring processions led small animals to a peak on the Macedonian side of Olympus and there sacrificed them to Zeus. The god’s share of the sacrificial meat was burned in the altar fire and the ashes were gathered in a pile upon which letters were inscribed. When the procession ascended the following year, they would find everything intact and the letters in the ashes just as they had left them, since neither wind blew to erase them nor rain fell to dissolve the pile. Antiquities have also been found on other peaks, but these have not been excavated.
Since Olympus was the home of the Gods, human settlements were restricted to the foothills of the mountain. The cities of Herakleion/Platamon, Pythion, Petra, Pimpleia and Leivithra (where, according to tradition, the grave of the mythical Orpheus was located), are some of the ancient cities neighboring the realm of the Gods.
The history of Olympus has been a tumultuous one. Even since ancient times, the surrounding area, apart from being a site of sacred pilgrimage, formed a battlefield for the control of access from Thessaly to Macedonia.
On Mount Olympus one can find the chapel of the Prophet Elias, on the peak of Prophitis Elias at 2,803 m. This is the highest elevation upon which a chapel has been constructed in the whole Orthodox world. It was built in the 16th century by Hosios Dionysios of Olympus, reportedly constructed upon ancient ruins. The same saint founded the most important monastery in the region, the Old Monastery of Hosios Dionysios, located at an altitude of 820m within the gorge of the River Enipeas.
Owing to its outstanding natural beauty, Olympus was the first area in Greece for which a special protection scheme was implemented, with its proclamation as a National Forest in 1938.
The forest itself features an anarchic succession of vegetation. As the altitude increases, the vegetation of Olympus, and particularly its distribution, presents many peculiarities. Thus, while in the neighbouring mountains of Pieria, Titaros, and Ossa there is a clear sequence of vegetation zones, on Olympus one witnesses an anarchy in zone succession due to its great variety of microclimates, which are due to the bedrock, slope, altitude above sea level, steep gradients and general terrain.
Generally speaking, there are four discernible zones of vegetation. The first, ranging from 300 to 500m, is comprised of evergreen sclerophyllous vegetation and includes shrubs and low trees such as holm oak (Quercus ilex), Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus adrachne), Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), and prickly juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus). There are also certain characteristic deciduous species such as manna ash (Fraxinus ornus), smoke tree (Cotinus coggyria), Montpellier maple (Acer monspessulanum), Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), turpentine tree (Pistacia terebinthus) and others.
From 600 to 1400m, which is the zone of beech-fir and montane conifers, we come across black pine (Pinus nigra var. pallasiana) in unmixed and compact stands, or in mixed stands with beech (Fagus sylvatica). Beech forms small clusters, unmixed or mixed with fir, Bosnian pine or black pine, and occupies the richer and wetter soils. In small clusters and scrubs we encounter Macedonian fir (Abies borissi-regis), oriental hornbeam (Carpinus orientalis), wych elm (Ulmus glabra), common hazel (Coryllus avellana), dogwood (Cornus mas), yew (Taxus baccata), as well as a significant variety of herbaceous plants. In the gorges and ravines are found oriental plane trees (Platanus orientalis) and willows (Salix eleagnos).
From 1400 to 2500 meters the zone of boreal conifers emerges, dominated primarily by Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii), a rare species of pine, which makes its appearance at an altitude of around 1,100 meters. Gradually replacing black pine, it forms unmixed stands up to nearly 2,000 meters. The areas where Bosnian pine grows are usually dry with rocky slopes. The vegetation that grows in the region is adapted to specific local conditions and is represented by characteristic shrubs, grasses, chasmophytes, etc., while the flora includes many endemic Balkan species.
Above 2,500 meters, the highest treeline in the Balkans, we no longer find forests but a variety of sub-alpine ecosystems of low-growing vegetation with many rare wildflowers, most of which are endemic to Olympus, Greece or the Balkans.
The intangible cultural wealth of the mountain, recorded in the Homeric epics, Hesiod’s Theogony, the works of Pindar, Sophocles, Aeschylus and other important works of antiquity (Plato, Demosthenes, and others), established Olympus as a source of inspiration and symbolism for ancient Greek and universal artistic creation as well as a unique, globally recognised reference point. The peaks of Olympus were the place where legends were forged, starring the Twelve Gods, the Muses, and the Graces, as well as sites of open-air worship. Thus, at the foot of the mountain, beneath the clouds of Olympus, a rich cultural landscape was formed, highlighting the timeless value of the region and exerting an influence on the evolution of art and culture.
The sacred sites and pathways of antiquity and the Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments constitute unique and rare evidence of human presence on this inhospitable mountain. These enduring testimonies, spanning over 3,000 years of history on Olympus, have contributed to the creation of a fascinating combination of myth, history and nature. Furthermore, they have led to the salvation of a national park of exceptional natural beauty and unparalleled geomorphology, in which an evolving ecosystem biodiversity is preserved, rendering Olympus a site of particular importance.
The unique landscape of Olympus, which inspired this rich mythology, hosts a great variety of flora and fauna. In the region of Olympus there are around 1,700 taxa, representing 25% of Greek flora. They include locally endemic species, species endemic to Greece and the Balkans, as well as rare and endangered species. More than 100 bird species reside on Olympus, including raptors and woodland species such as hawks and woodpeckers, and 30 mammal species including the Balkan chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra balcanica), which climbers frequently encounter during their ascent of Mt Olympus. Around 30 species of amphibian and reptile have been recorded, as well as numerous invertebrates, among them the famous butterflies of Olympus.
Furthermore, the importance of the National Park has been recognized not only in Greece but also in Europe and worldwide. In 1981 UNESCO declared Olympus a 'Biosphere Reserve'.
Criterion (vi): Olympus, with its imperious and majestic scenery, was chosen by the ancient Greeks as the focal point of their mythology and religious beliefs. The intangible cultural wealth recorded in the Homeric epics and Hesiod's Theogony, major literary works of antiquity, turned Olympus into a source of inspiration and symbolism, an iconographic archetype for subsequent Greek and universal artistic creation, and a globally recognised reference point. The peaks were the setting where legends were forged starring the Twelve Gods, the Muses, and the Graces. The open-air sites of worship, the surviving ancient pathways, the Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments located high in the mountains, are unique and rare evidence of human life in this inhospitable place. At the foot of the mountain, beneath the clouds of Olympus, a rich cultural landscape was formed, highlighting the enduring value of the region and exerting an influence on the evolution of art and culture.
Criterion (viii): From a geological perspective, the tectonic window of Olympus is of particular interest. The tectonic window of Olympus is the result of Godfriaux’s research in 1968, which confirmed the overthrust of Greek belts from East to West. It constitutes one of the most important discoveries in the geology of Greece. It has been ascertained that the higher region of Olympus is occupied by a carbonate sedimentation (sequence) of the Triassic-Eocene age, which is surrounded by crystalline and Triassic marbles of the Pelagonian Zone.
Criterion (ix): The ancient beech forests located at the core of the National Park are a representative example of a protected forest with ecological and biological processes which are directly linked to the evolution of beech forests in the region and across Europe, given that beech forests were a shelter during the last ice age, resulting in their high genetic diversity. The forests of the region have been under official protection since 1938, and thus the ecosystems evolve solely on the basis of biological processes and local site conditions. Moreover, the beech forests of Olympus are an excellent example of a forest ecosystem under extreme site conditions, as elements of pure Mediterranean, Continental and Sub-alpine climate converge due to the mountain’s proximity to the Mediterranean coast as well as its remarkable altitude (2,918 m).
Criterion (x): Olympus features a high biodiversity, especially regarding its flora, with over 20 locally endemic species, many of which grow in subalpine meadows at high altitudes. For instance, within limestone crevices grows the endemic species Jankaea heldreichii, a plant relic of the Ice Age (Tertiary relic).
Olympus is a natural, historical and archaeological symbol. It has remained intact, without severe anthropogenic interventions, maintaining its natural beauty and outstanding historical significance. Thanks to its early designation as a national park, an archaeological and historical site, and owing to its direct association with the dwelling of the mythical gods of Olympus, the physical, biological and geological characteristics and imposing landscape of Olympus remain unaltered to this day.
This association, combined with the area’s exceptional natural beauty, has profoundly influenced public cultural and environmental awareness, ultimately leading to the mountain’s preservation. As a result, intense development and heavy infrastructure are absent from the area and natural ecosystems exhibit very good structure and form. The existing natural and anthropogenic pressures are not intense enough to have altered the distinctive character of the area. Furthermore, the supervision exercised both by the Olympus National Park Management Agency and by the competent Ephorates of Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports ensures: a) the conservation of the biophysical processes of the landscape and its geomorphology, as well as the protection of flora and local fauna, and b) that the mountain’s monumental and historic appearance is safeguarded from any kind of direct and indirect and deterioration.
Olympus constitutes a natural monument of global and symbolic value. It is world famous for being the epicenter of Greek mythology and for its prominent historical significance. It is one of the rare monuments that combines areas of outstanding natural beauty and important cultural and historical elements. Compared to other mountainous regions in Greece and worldwide, Olympus is a unique location where prominent natural beauty and biodiversity are inextricably linked to a famous and universally recognisable mythological tradition, arising from the Ancient Greek civilisation that influenced and conveyed its knowledge and achievements to almost the entire world and whose signs and landmarks are visible even today.
Specifically, in relation to similar areas within the country, Olympus differs from the National Park of Dadia - Lefkimmi – Soufli Forest, since the dominant element of the latter is its avian biodiversity, primarily that of raptors. Likewise, the Samaria National Park (Lefka Ori, Crete) is characterized by beautiful landscapes and numerous endemic plants, as is Olympus, but the characteristic landscape of the Lefka Ori consists of one large and numerous smaller gorges, whilst the landscape of Olympus is comprised of peaks, alpine plateaus and steep ravines. Moreover, the plant species that occur in each region differ. Finally, none of the other areas combine natural elements, such as outstanding natural beauty and species biodiversity, with cultural elements such as mythology and important archaeological and historical finds.