A Walking Tour of Olympia in Greece

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The Greek Classical Site of Olympia

The Greek Classical Site of Olympia
The Greek Classical Site of Olympia. Aschwin Prein

In 1875, German archaeologist Ernst Curtius realized one of his life long dreams: to excavate at the Greek site of Olympia, home of the ancient festival of Zeus. What he found there ultimately led to the re-institution of the Olympic Games.

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Excavations at Olympia, Greece

Olympia, Greece
Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

Several scholars visited Olympia before Curtius, of course, among them J.J. Winckelmann. The first excavations at Olympia were in 1829, conducted by French archaeologists of the Expédition Scientifique de Morée. Some architectural elements were removed from Olympia during this excavation and are in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

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The Stadium at Olympia, Greece

Stadium, Olympia, Greece
Stadium, Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

The athletic festivals upon which our modern Olympic games are based were held at Olympia between 776 BC and AD 393. According to Greek legend, they had been held during the early Bronze Age as well, as early as the 10th or 11th century BC. The best records date to the revival of the Festival of Zeus in 776 BC. Games were held every four years, at the beginning and middle of the so-called "Great Year," a calendric trick used to rectify the differences in solar and lunar years. This photograph is of the stadium entrance, where athletes would parade in at the start of the games.

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The Temple of Hera at Olympia

Temple of Hera, Olympia, Greece
Temple of Hera, Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

The Temple of Hera (or Heraion) is the oldest of the structures at Olympia, and the earliest monumental temple in Greece, built about 600 BC. The original columns for the Heraion were of wood, but they were eventually replaced with marble.

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The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

Temple of Zeus, Olympia, Greece
Temple of Zeus, Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

The Temple of Zeus, while not as old as the Heraion, was of a grander scale. The building of the temple was described by the writer Pausanias the Traveler, who reported that it had been built by the architect Lidon between 470 and 456 BC. He wrote: "Its height up to the pediment is sixty-eight feet, its breadth is ninety-five, its length two hundred and thirty. ... The tiles are not of baked earth, but of Pentelic marble cut into the shape of tiles. The invention is said to be that of Byzes of Naxos, who they say made the images in Naxos on which is the inscription:--

To the offspring of Leto was I dedicated by Euergus,
A Naxian, son of Byzes, who first made tiles of stone."

At the center of the temple stood a twelve-meter high gold and ivory statue of Zeus, sitting on his throne, and wrought by Pheidias. It was one of the 12 wonders of the world.

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Workshop of Pheidias at Olympia

Workshop of Pheidias, Olympia, Greece
Workshop of Pheidias, Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

These ruins represent the structure known as the Workshop of Pheidias. According to Pausanias the Traveler, Pheidias built the gold and ivory statue of Zeus here. Confirming Pausanias' reports, excavators found tools, a cup marked "Pheidias", and terracotta molds used to create the 12 meter high wonder. Built about 430 BC.

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Greek Baths at Olympia

Greek Baths at Olympia
Greek Baths at Olympia. Aschwin Prein

As a place of athletic competition, Olympia had a complex with a gymnasium, swimming pool and baths. The original Greek pool was a rectangle with cold water, although several later extensions and revisions included a separate swimming pool and sitz baths, and heated water. Built about 480 BC.

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Palaestra at Olympia

Palaestra at Olympia, Greece
Palaestra at Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

The Palaestra at Olympia, built during the 3rd century BC, was part of the athletic complex and used for wrestling, boxing and jumping events.

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Villa of the Roman Emperor Nero at Olympia

Nero's Villa at Olympia, Greece
Nero's Villa at Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

Eventually, the Romans moved into Olympia, and in the first century AD, the emperor Nero had a villa built at the site.

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Lighting the Olympic Flame

Lighting the Olympic Flame, Olympia, Greece
Lighting the Olympic Flame, Olympia, Greece. Aschwin Prein

Today, at the start of the modern Olympics, a ceremony is held at Olympia, where a flame is rekindled using a parabolic mirror. After the flame is lit, it is carried to this altar at the Temple of Hera, where the Olympic runners begin the Torch Relay to wherever in the world the Olympics are held.

If you enjoyed this Walking Tour of Olympia, you should try the other Walking Tours and Photo Essays at About Archaeology.