This birthplace of purity in thought, word and deed leaves us breathless.
Compared with some of the magnificently monumental architectural edifices that exist around the world, walking around Olympia, on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, on a baking hot airless afternoon can seem like nothing more than struggling around an archaic, rather derelict building site.
In many ways it is but little could be further from the truth, either in terms of global cultural significance or the sculptural artefacts that remain.
To quote from the first three criteria applied to Olympia’s recognition as a World Heritage Site:
1) The sanctuary of the Altis contained one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces of the ancient Mediterranean world
2) The influence of the monuments of Olympia has been considerable…Its value as a standard in architecture is in any case indisputable.
3) Olympia bears exceptional testimony to the ancient civilizations of Peloponnese, both in terms of duration and quality
Evidence of civilisation remains almost intact in Olympia since the 4th millennium B.C. through successive occupations up until Roman times – until it was finally abandoned by virtue of flood and earthquake in the 7th century, with each era clearly charted in its remains and excavations.
1. Northwest Propylon, 2. Prytaneion, 3. Philippeion, 4. Temple of Hera, 5. Pelopion, 6. Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus, 7. Metroon, 8. Treasuries, 9. Crypt (arched way to the stadium), 10. Stadium, 11. Echo Stoa, 12. Building of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, 13. Hestia stoa, 14. Hellenistic building, 15. Temple of Zeus, 16. Altar of Zeus, 17. Ex-voto of Achaeans, 18. Ex-voto of Mikythos, 19. Nike of Paeonius, 20. Gymnasion, 21. Palaestra, 22. Theokoleon, 23. Heroon, 24. Pheidias’ workshop and paleochristian basilica, 25. Baths of Kladeos, 26. Greek baths, 27. and 28. Hostels, 29. Leonidaion, 30. South baths, 31. Bouleuterion, 32. South stoa, 33. Villa of Nero.
Treasuries. I. Sicyon, II. Syracuse, III. Epidamnus(?), IV. Byzantium(?), V. Sybaris(?), VI. Cyrene(?), VII. Unidentified, VIII. Altar(?), IX. Selinunte, X. Metapontum, XI. Megara, XII. Gela.
To our mind, the casual tourist (as opposed to the historian or archaeologist) should approach Olympia by first acclimatising themselves – both to the temperatures likely to be encountered and the huge universal contextual significance of the site.
Olympia, as a cultural and religious sanctuary of antiquity represents, perhaps, all that is good and pure in society; epitomised by being the birthplace of the Olympic Games that stood for the unimpeachable values of ‘Fair Competition and the Sacred Truce’.
This fulcrum of Greek thinking championed the nobility of free men overcoming all obstacles in search of virtue. The Olympic Games further promoted this notion, in searching for answers within nature and the respect for rules that ultimately make the co-existence of free men possible.
Such a shame therefore that these original sacrosanct standards appear in recent times to have been reduced to the same condition that the temples themselves have.
From the Temple of Zeus, to the Sanctuary of Altis (literal milestones in the evolution of art) and the Olympic Stadium, where man competed only for the symbolic reward of a laurel wreath, Olympia’s aura transcends its physical presence – if you allow it to.
Imagination always plays a large part in our meanderings around ancient monuments but its easy to capture the moment as you walk beneath the entry arch, through the walled funnel, to stand on the threshold of the oval Stadium running track in preparation for an Olympian challenge in your life.
That’s not to say that the ruins and the sculptures are not themselves fascinating stepping stones through history but as we rested in the fractured shade of an Olive tree it was easy to see how the mid-summer heat could wear down the most ardent traveller. The site is one of the flattest and most easily navigated in Europe – but even here, our old jungle motto of ‘walk or watch’ holds good in that strolling around gazing into the air at Doric columns will result in several stumbles or falls over recumbent stones.
Ancient Olympia is situated at the western end of the Peloponnese peninsula and is best reached by car – whether you’ve arrived by water, 30kms away at Katakolon or by road from Athens, 300kms away – your independence and the journey are both worthwhile; so that far from being railroaded on a bus or tour, you can stop and sight-see to your own schedule and disposition, if you’ve rented a vehicle.
Don’t go to Olympia if you expect to be awed by the majesty and scale of the place but do go there if you’re prepared to re-calibrate your sense of existential awe at what was once the religious and cultural centre of our world and which created and lived by standards that we should value above all else today.
Some useful background, history and context for Olympia can be found on these websites
Olympia Official website
Unesco – Olympia classification description