The first games to be held at Olympia were believed to have been around 776 BC. And the games would continue there each Olympiad (four year periods) until 393 AD, during the Roman period. Before, and during that era of the games, Olympia was also a holy sanctuary that dated back to the 10th century BC. The golden age for Olympia was in the classical Greek period of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. It was during this time that most of the expansion and building at the site took place. One of the most impressive temples built was the Temple of Zeus, which held one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Between the Olympiads Olympia was home to only a few priests and priestess, but when the games where held the population grew as each City State across Greece sent their champions to compete. So sacred were the Olympics that all wars where suspended during the games. These games were a religious event, more than a sporting one.
The place where the sacred flame was lite before the start of the games was at an Alter just outside of the Temple to Hera. Today the lighting of the Olympic torch is done at that same location by actresses, in ancient dress using a parabolic mirror to create the flame. Just in case they have a bad weather day they do it twice, over two days. The ancient Olympic Games were always held at Olympia, it’s only the modern games that move from one city to another. And the running of the Olympic torch started with the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
To enter the ancient Olympic stadium athletes and spectators went through a walled entry way with an arch. There are niches in the wall where the male athletes left their cloths. Yes the contestants competed in the nude. Only men could compete, or even watch the games. When a woman, disguised in male dress, was caught viewing the events a new rule was made that even the spectators had to be naked.
The ancient stadium has been restored to the way it was at the height of the games. The sides around the playing field is sloped, this is where the viewers sat. At the half way point there are stone seats for the judges. The length of the field is 192 yards. The original starting blocks and finish line are still in the ground. Today you can walk under the arch (but leave your cloths on) and out onto the field. There you may walk, or even race on this hallowed ground.
There were two major temples at Olympia; the Temple of Hera and the Temple of her husband, the king of the Greek Gods, Zeus. The Temple to Hera is the oldest at Olympia. Built around 590 BC, it is thought to have been originally dedicated to Zeus. It was then rededicated to the Goddess Hera in around 580 BC. The temple measured 164.1 feet long by 61.5 feet wide. An earthquake in the 4th century destroyed this temple and it was never rebuild. Just across the way from the temple of Hera is the larger Temple to Zeus.
The Temple of Zeus was believed to have been built between 472 and 456 BC. In its time this massive structure was the largest in the Peloponnese, and it’s considered to be the best example of Doric architecture. Contrary to belief not all ancient Greek temples were built of marble. This great temple was constructed of local shell-limestone and then covered in white stucco. However what this temple is most noted for is housing one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the 42 foot tall, gold and marble statue of Zeus. Its sculptor was the famous Greek artist Phidias, who had earlier sculpted the statue of Athena that stood in the Parthenon in Athens. This marvelous work of art awed visitors to Olympia for centuries.
But what happened to this ancient wonder? It is know that it was damaged and repaired after an earthquake in 170 BC, but after that it becomes a mystery. There are many thoughts on its disappearance. One is that after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity he ordered all the gold striped from pagan shrines, including this statue, and in doing so destroying it. Another theory is that a following Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, after he abolished the Olympic Games in in 425 AD, burned all of the temples, with the statue being consumed in the fire. And another story is that a Greek art collector moved the statue to Constantinople were it was destroyed when fire swept through that city in 475 AD. All that is known for sure is that this great work of art has been lost to history.
Today the archaeological site of Olympia is in ruin, having been destroyed by the Romans, earthquakes, fire and floods, that buried the entire site under twenty feet of silt. After you finish your exploration of the archaeological site of ancient Olympia take the short walk over to its museum. There you’ll view the artifacts that were recovered beneath the silt, even the molds that were used for the wondrous statue of Zeus.