Olympia is the birthplace of the Olympic Games. Its history, intertwined with that of the famed athletic competition, goes far back in the age of the gods of Greek mythology. There are many myths concerning the origin of the Olympic Games. One of these credits the Dactyl Heracles for the institution of the games. The dactyls are ancient spirits appointed by Zeus’ aunt Rhea to guard him against his father Cronus, who was known to devour his own children. Heracles was their leader and coming back from the land of Hyperboreans and bringing a sacred olive branch, he established the Olympiads in honor of Zeus when he eventually defeated his own father. Zeus had also helped Heracles when he waged war against Augeas.
Mythology aside, Olympia had been inhabited since 2800 BC. Before it became the sanctuary of Zeus, the Myceneans worshipped the goddess Rhea here. The Olympic Games began in 776 BC as a peace treaty between the Spartans and the Eleans (inhabitants of Elis) although eventually it was to include all the Greek states. All the participants were expected to respect the sacred truce for the duration of the games. Warring states drop their arms during the games and compete only in athletics. As a result, the Olympic Games became an important setting for political discussions, treaties and trade.
Women, especially the married ones, and slaves were forbidden from watching the games. The women who are caught sneaking in are thrown off Mt. Typaeon. But women were allowed to compete in certain events such as foot races. Other events participated in by men are chariot and horse racing, discus, javelin and long-jump. The gathering was not limited to athletic competition. There were also writing, poetry and history readings.
The Olympic Games continued for nearly 12 centuries. By 426 AD, however, the Christian emperor Theodosius shut down the whole sanctuary and banned the games declaring it to be pagan. Earthquakes in the 6th century destroyed most of the buildings of Olympia and at present, there is not much that remains of the magnificent structures in this beloved place of Zeus.
As early as the 10th century BC, Olympia already acted as a place of worship and political practices. The people are deeply devoted to Zeus, and between the 5th and 4th century BC, the temple of Zeus was built. Inside the temple was a huge statue of Zeus made of gold and ivory. It was so magnificent that it was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. What remains of the temple now, however, are just the columns; the statue has disappeared toward the end of the 4th century BC.
The oldest structure in Olympia and the oldest known Doric architecture is the temple of Hera, Zeus’ wife. The temple was originally made of wood but was later on replaced by marble. Presumably along with that of Zeus, the temple of Hera was also destroyed by an earthquake around the 4th century BC and was never rebuilt. Its ruins can be found in the north of the altis.
As for the site of the ancient Olympic Games, there is not much left of it after Theodosius and the earthquakes devastated much of it. The archaeological site, though, remains to be a popular destination for tourists.
While having a Greece vacation, take a look at the local accommodation options at Olympia hotels guide.
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