In his Olympian Speech (33,2) the famous ancient orator Lysias described the region of Olympia as “the most beautiful place in Greece”. It was a land the ancient world saw as “sacred”, because with the truce it proclaimed the city-states of that time had to stop fighting against each other during the religious and athletic activities of the Olympic Games.
For almost 1,200 years the Olympic land was glorified by divine legends and graced by the Olympic Games. The holy grove of Olympia, the Altis, lies in the green valley formed by Alpheios, the ‘king’ of Peloponesian rivers, the river Kladeos, small and rapid in those days, and the small hill of Kronion. This grove with its wealth of sacred monuments, temples, altars, votive columns, statues, buildings, etc. was the place where free people from all over the contemporary world gathered to admire beauty and strength in their purest and most brilliant form.
The strength and beauty of the contestants arose from a noble competitive spirit based on physical and mental contest. The fruit of this competition was the most coveted gift of life health, physical well-being, mental and physical beauty; the things even simple visitors could feel and enjoy.
The first ruins in Ancient Olympia were brought to light in 1829 through the excavations carried out by the French Archaeological Mission in Peloponese. Systematic digging was started by the German Archaeological School in 1875. Today, one enters the site by crossing the bridge over Kladeos river. Going down into Altis we find the ancient Gymnasium to the right, only partly excavated, and the Palaestra next to it. To the left are the ruins of the buildings of Prytaneion, Philippeion, Heraeon and Pelopion.
The Heraeon (temple of Hera) goes back at the beginning of the 6th century B.C. and is considered to be the oldest temple in Olympia.
Inside the temple were many votive offerings, and around the mid-2nd c. A.D. Pausanias saw there the disk on which the holy truce agreement had been inscribed. The famous statue of Hermes by Praxiteles was found here. Next to the Heraeon is the Metroon and the pedestals for the statues of Zeus, which were called Zanes and were paid for with the fines imposed on the athletes who violated the regulations of the contests. Turning to the right we come to the Echo Colonnade or Sevenfold Echo and the votive column erected by King Ptolemeus Philadelphus and his sister Arsinoe, and then to the temple of Zeus. It was a large temple of unsurpassed grandeur, built as a Doric hexastyle measuring 27.66 m. by 64.12 m. and adorned with sculptured decoration.
The eastern pediment depicts the preparations for the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops; the western pediment shows the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The twelve metopes of the nave above its entrances in the eastern and western side, being six in each side, were decorated images of the twelve Labours of Hercules.
Inside the temple was the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, made by Pheidias and praised like no other creation of classical Greece as a work of unsurpassed skill and grandeur.
The triangular base for the statue of Nike of Paeonios has survived in front of the temple. Lying south of the temple are the Bouleuterion, the Leonidaion and, to the west, the workshop of Pheidias, the Theikoleon (Priests House) and the Hellenistic and Roman the swimming pool and baths. Passing through the gate of Crypt we enter the Stadium, with the hill of Kronos to the left and the river Alpheios to the right and back. The track is 192.27m in length. There never were any seats of stone or marble, except for a few stone seats for the Hellanodikai and the marble altar of Demeter, reserved for the priestess of the goddess – the only woman who had the right to attend the games. Also surviving are the stone slabs with the grooves used as a star ting line for the races.
“I feel that this is the ideal place to reflect on the evolution of our society. We are in a haven of peace and balance, where centuries remain engraved on the stones, the meanders of the Alpheios river, the beauty of the vegetation and the serenity which pervades this unique place, Olympia, where sport started on its most glorious and finest course.”
Juan Antonio SAMARANCH