HINT: Ta Are-hay-ah tees Ol-eem-Bee-as? Is how to ask directions to the ruins just in case! 'Are-hay-ah' (which means ancient ruins in this instance) is where the English word Archeology stems from and is used in modern Greek as well. It means: the beginning or source, as in Are-hee! Archeology means: the study of beginnings. An Archon or Archegos was a leader in ancient Greece.
Ancient Olympia's administrative nome, Elia prefecture, is among the most salubrious of the Peloponnese and if time permits and the inclination exists, I recommend renting a car and visiting it and the many other sites of the Peloponnese! Its about a 4 to 5 hour drive from Athens on a good day!
Alternatively, many less adventurous visitors go to Ancient Olympia and other sites by bus tour and never get lost. Today the country side is quite verdant and unspoiled, and the ruins shaded by evergreen oaks, poplars, planes and Allepo pines with an occasional olive tree thrown in for good measure there are several good hotels too!
For centuries the ruins of Olympia lay hidden under 12 to 15 feet of mud and sand. The near by rivers have several times over flown their banks covering the earthquake shattered and human plundered sanctuary which used to house over 3,000 statues.
776 BC is the first conclusive surviving date of the list of ancient Olympic Game contestants and winners. The four year period between the games was called an Olympiad. From its inception, the ancient Greeks used the Olympic Games as their calendar and system of dating.
Homer never mentions the Olympic games but most historians agree that the Olympic Games go back beyond 776 BC and all concur that there were many other games held locally throughout Greece as well.
However, the games held in Olympia every four years were the apogee of ancient Greek games and the most sacred, being dedicated to Zeus, ruler of the ancient Greek pantheon. They were not team contests but about individual strength and skill.
Olympia was a sacred precinct, not a city. It was home to an exclusive society of priests, temples, treasuries and other buildings necessary to the conduct of the games. It slowly became a sanctuary which housed many treasures of Greek art. In the center was the Altis or temple (= alter?), dedicated to Zeus whose gold and ivory (chryselephantine) statue was considered one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was designed by Pheidias, who incidentally, also designed the interior of Athens' Parthenon. No one alive to day knows what the statue really looked like but Pausanias written description still exists, of which this picture (right), is a depiction. The statues frame and center was made of wood and covered with gold and ivory and stood 36 feet high!
It is thought that after the reign of Christian zealot Emperor Theodosius I (who stopped all pagan festivals, including the games in 393 AD), that the statue was carried off to Constantinople and destroyed in the fire of 475 AD. Not to be outdone, Theodosius II in 426 AD, ordered the total destruction of all the sanctuaries temples. Even the Moors or Turks never did that!
As most people will recall, Zeus ruled from Mt. Olympus, and it is no coincidence that the names are almost identical even though the locales are hundreds of miles apart. Mt. Olympus being closer to Thessaloniki in the north.
The sanctuary got started when a tribe originating from Thessaly in northern Greece (where Mt. Olympus is) migrated south to this particular area and eventually supplanted the existing peoples called the Pisans. The migrants were called Elians and from them, the nome is is still called Elia, but the territory is called Pisatis just to be fair and confusing.
It was the Elians that first called the area Olympia, perhaps to remind themselves of their homeland, or perhaps they just thought big and had superior public relations skills or both. In any event, who ever thought up the games and sanctuary, came up with an idea that lasted for over a thousand years with very few interruptions! Obviously it has been subsequently resurrected as well. The games took place every 4 years, 293 times.
Excavations show that Olympia was a flourishing site as far back as the Mycenaean period. The actual history of its foundation exists only in myth and Pausanias in his Book V, offers the best collection of these and other anecdotes concerning the subsequent degradation by specialization and professionalism of the games. The ancient authorities also differ as to the dates of ascension of the Elians over the Pisans as well, but it was somewhere between 572 and 471 BC.
In spite of all the squabbling and bloody wars between the city states, or more likely because of them, the Olympic Games were held with unfailing regularity. During the period of the games a truce prevailed throughout Greece. This was know as the Olympic Truce or Ekecheria.