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Greece (Peloponnese)

Carrying a torch for Olympia, Greece

Olympia, Greece was worth three bus rides and a taxi

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Here I am just looking out at all the layers upon layers of excavations.

Yesterday, we toured the Sanctuary of Olympia, the mammoth archaeological site at Olympia, Greece.  Thanks to the Olympic Games, I would venture to say that most of us have heard of this site. However, I myself didn’t realize that there was virtually a complete city in this location, in addition to the athletic contests.

Above is a diagram of the Olympia site that our AirBnb host showed us when we arrived at our apartment. See what I mean by city?!

It’s a good thing the archaeologists and designers placed an ample supply of informational placards around the site so people like me can understand and appreciate more of what they’re seeing.

To summarize, the placards placed at two locations near the front of the site read as follows:

“In this place Zeus, father of the Olympian gods, was worshipped, and splendid athletic contests, the Olympic Games, were celebrated. In the cella of the temple of Zeus was placed the enthroned gold-and-ivory made cult statue of the god, work of the famous Greek sculptor Pheidias, one of the seven wonders of the antiquity. Here too, nowadays the ceremony of lighting the flame for the modern Olympic Games is held.”

After I read those placards, I looked around and here was my first thought:  this place is huge.

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One ticket gets you into the archaeological site, the archaeological museum, and the museum of the history of  the Olympics.The site and museums are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Adult tickets are 12€ each. You can leave and return later in the day to any of the sites and even return the next day to continue your visit or see more. Note: We did not visit the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games. There was only so much time. If we had had another morning, we could have visited it then.

As I gazed across the grounds, as far as I could see were partially reconstructed colonnades, temples, baths, workshops, dwellings, and myriad other structures.

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The colonnade is a popular photo subject. Google “Olympia” and you will see lots of pictures of these columns.

This ability to see layers upon layers of excavations is the one major difference when I compare Olympia to Mycenae and Delphi, two other sites we had just seen during the previous three days.

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The Philippeion Tholos, a circular temple,  and the Temple of Hera in the background

By the way, we’re on a whirlwind tour of Greece. We’ve spent three weeks on the island of Skopelos and now we’re taking two weeks to see Athens, Mycenae, Delphi, Olympia and Crete. We will return home July 9.

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The Temple of Hera is in the background. In the foreground is the site of the lighting of the Olympic Torch that begins each modern Olympic Games.

At Mycenae and Delphi, you can definitely survey the sites across a hillside or from a high point (The Citadel at Mycenae, the Stadium at Delphi); however, at Olympia, you are looking through the site.

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The Tholos, a circular temple
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I took this picture because I couldn’t believe how sharp the scroll carving still is on these Ionic capitals.

For example, before you stands the colonnade of Palaistra. Beyond that, however, you see the impressive Tholos, and beyond that you see the standing columns of the Temple of Hera, and beyond that you see  the multi-tiered Nymphaion aqueduct fountain, through which you see the arched entrance to the stadium, the site of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC.

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Passing through the arched entry to The Stadium
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The marble starting blocks for the competing athletes at The Stadium
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The stadium, where foot races (forerunner to today’s 200-meter races) were held in the ancient Olympic Games.
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This is the workshop of Pheidias, the sculptor for the statue of ivory, gold, and bronze status of Zeus housed in the Temple of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
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This slab of carved marble is in Pheidias’ workshop

In other words, from any spot at Olympia, you will see layer upon layer of ruins in various stages of reconstruction. And then compressed between all those layers are stashes of more pieces.

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An earthquake in 522 AD 551 AD toppled these columns that stood in the Temple of  Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Notice how the drums fell and appear almost like dominoes.

Perhaps a field of column drums, a row of lion head water spouts, a random six-foot-tall triglyph, a plot of Ionic column drums, then a plot of Doric drums, then a composition of more rare Corinthian capitals.

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Here I’m standing next to a triglyph, three carved “columns” that were placed between metopes, relief sculptures below the pediment (the triangular-shaped friezes). See caption for next image.
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I’ve circled a triglyph in the image above. I’m standing next to one of these in the preceding picture. I couldn’t believe how large it was.

 

So many pieces and parts, but if you need a quick list of the top sights within Olympia, I think they would be:

  • The Temple of Zeus
  • The Temple of Hera
  • The Tholos
  • The Stadium
  • Workshop of Pleiades
  • The Palaistra , which includes the Colonnade

What’s more, when you tour the park, you will walk right among most of the artifacts and monuments and stones. You may even walk right on the original marble steps placed in this city of 2,500 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lion water spouts in a row on the ground surrounding the Temple of Zeus.

There are 1/2″-inch ropes that show you where you can and can’t go, and if you stray where you shouldn’t, you’ll hear a park employee sitting on a nearby park bench remind you with a sharp blast on a whistle.

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More columns.
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This was a building for council members. It contained water around the outside of this “curvy” centerpiece and also around the inner section.

Late last night, one couple climbed upon a large “rock” to see the floor of the Temple of Zeus, which was roped off unfortunately. (You can see them in the picture below.) Suddenly, a shrill blast! They didn’t hear or didn’t recognize their offense. Another blast! They looked around, the park employees shouted something in Greek, and down they jumped.

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We couldn’t believe how large this capital (the top of a column) that  once topped a column on the Temple of Zeus. Note the visitors standing on the stone shelf—that’s a major no-no.
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Each capital had these notches carved into them to help them lock onto the column.

Perhaps they didn’t realize they were standing on an architectural relic. After all, there are so many stones EVERYWHERE.

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We returned in the evening to see parts of Olympia again. The light put a different cast on the monuments.

To be safe, when you’re at Olympia, assume that any rock is not actually a rock, but rather an artifact. If you want to sit down for a bit, look for an actual park bench. There are several. That’s the safest bet.

Or head over to the Olympia Archaeological Museum.

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The Olympia Archaeological Museum front entrance
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Various helmets excavated at Olympia
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This was a statue of Nike that used to be mounted on the Temple of Zeus.
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This is a statue of Hermes and was found in the Temple of Hera.
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One of two reconstructed friezes from one of the pediments on the Temple of Zeus. This one features Apollo (son of Zeus) in the middle.
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One of two reconstructed friezes from one of the pediments on the Temple of Zeus. This one features Zeus in the middle.
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More lion water spouts and other prominent sculptures are placed around the outside loggia of the museum. You can just walk right up to these. But don’t touch, obviously. There were no guards anywhere around, which surprised us.

Although Olympia takes some planning to reach, it’s definitely worth the visit.

The site and museums are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Adult tickets are 12€ each. You can leave and return later in the day to any of the sites and even return the next day to continue your visit or see more. We arrived at the archaeological site at 8:30 a.m. and left about two and a half hours later. Tour bus groups arrived around 10.

As it was getting quite hot, we left at 10:40, went out for gyros and a soda, and then returned to the air-conditioned museum for about two hours in the afternoon.

Later that evening, we returned to the archaeological site to see more and take pictures with the sun coming from a different angle.


The modern city of Olympia is a beautiful little city that is literally about two blocks from the archaeological site. I’ll write a short post about the town tomorrow. Our AirBnb host told us the permanent population is only about 700 people! 

Thanks for reading! Click like, leave a comment and follow my blog for more stories about travelling in Greece. 

11 replies on “Carrying a torch for Olympia, Greece”

Yes, it’s humbling. I often can’t wrap the age of these sights around my head. 800-1,000 years BEFORE Christ?!?! Gives Biblical eras some perspective. So this would have been the era of the OT prophets?!

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