Ancient Olympia

Top choice archaeological site in Olympia

Image by Cameris Getty Images

This is where the Olympic Games took place every four years for over 1100 years, until their abolition by Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393. The Olympic flame is still lit here for the modern Games. Thanks to the destruction ordered by Theodosius II in AD 420 and various subsequent earthquakes, little remains of the magnificent temples and athletic facilities, but enough exists to give you a hint of the sanctuary's former glory. It is one of Greece's most evocative ancient sites.

Wandering amid the tree-shaded ruins, you can almost picture the blood and smoke of oxen sacrificed to Zeus and Hera, the sweaty, oiled-up athletes waiting inside the original stadium, the jostling crowds, and the women and slaves watching the proceedings from a nearby hill. It's worth remembering that some structures precede others by centuries; a visit to the archaeological museum before or after will provide context and help with visualising the ancient buildings.

On your right as you descend, the first ruin encountered is the gymnasium, which dates from the 2nd century BC. South of here are the columns of the partly restored palaestra (wrestling school), where contestants practised and trained. Beyond is Pheidias’ workshop, where the gargantuan ivory-and-gold Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sculpted by the Athenian master. The workshop was identified by archaeologists after the discovery of tools and moulds; in the 5th century AD it was converted into an early Christian church. Next is the leonidaion, an elaborate structure that accommodated dignitaries, built around 330 BC.

The Altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus, lies on the left of the path you came down. Its most important building was the immense 5th-century-BC Doric Temple of Zeus, which enshrined Pheidias’ statue, later removed to Constantinople by Theodosius II (where it was destroyed by fire in AD 475). One column of the temple has been restored and re-erected, and helps put into perspective the sheer size of the structure. To the east of the temple is the base for the Nike (Victory statue) that you can admire in the archaeological museum.

South of the Temple of Zeus is the bouleuterion (council house), which contains the altar of oaths, where competitors swore to abide by the rules decreed by the Olympic Senate and not to commit foul play. Here were kept the official records of the Games and its champions.

East of the temple is the echo stoa, with a Doric colonnade leading towards the stadium. Its remarkable acoustics meant that a sound uttered within was repeated seven times. Just east of the portico are the remains of a lavish villa used by Emperor Nero during his participation in the Games in AD 67; it replaced the original Sanctuary of Hestia.

The stadium lies to the east of the Altis and is entered through a stone archway. It is rectangular, with a track measuring 192.27m; the stone start and finish lines of the sprint track and the judges’ seats still survive. The stadium could seat at least 45,000 spectators; slaves and women, however, had to be content to watch from outside on the Hill of Kronos. The stadium was used again in 2004, when it was the venue for the shotput at the Athens Olympics.

To the north of the Temple of Zeus was the pelopion, a small, wooded hillock with an altar to Pelops, the first mythical hero of the Olympic Games. It was surrounded by a wall containing the remains of its later Classical-period Doric portico. Many artefacts now displayed in the museum were found on the hillock. There's also a large third-millennium-BC burial site here.

Further north is the late 7th-century-BC Doric Temple of Hera, the site’s oldest temple. An altar in front of the temple would have maintained a continuous fire during the Games, symbolising the fire stolen from the gods by Prometheus; today, the Olympic flame is lit here.

Near the altar is the nymphaeum (AD 156–60), erected by the wealthy Roman banker Herodes Atticus. Typical of buildings financed by Roman benefactors, it was grandiose, consisting of a semicircular building with Doric columns flanked at each side by a circular temple. The building contained statues of Herodes Atticus and his family, though Zeus took centre stage. Despite its elaborate appearance, the nymphaeum had a practical purpose; it was a fountain house supplying Olympia with fresh spring water.

Beyond the nymphaeum and up a flight of stone steps, a row of 12 treasuries stretched to the stadium, each erected by a city-state for use as a storehouse for offerings to the gods; these were mainly used to advertise the city-state's prestige and wealth.

At the bottom of these steps are the scant remains of the 4th-century-BC Metroön, a temple dedicated to Rhea, the mother of the gods. Apparently the ancients worshipped Rhea in this temple with orgies.

The foundations of the philippeion, west of the Temple of Hera, are the remains of a circular construction with Ionic columns built by Philip of Macedon to commemorate the Battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), where he defeated a combined army of Athenians and Thebans. The building contained gold-and-ivory-covered statues of Philip and his family, including his son, Alexander the Great.

North of the philippeion was the 5th-century-BC prytaneum, the magistrate’s residence. Here, winning athletes feasted and were entertained. This was also where the fire of Hestia burned eternally, symbolising the common hearth of all Greeks.

It is worth visiting first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon; it's a magical experience to be there without the crowds. Information panels are in Greek, English and German. The entrance ticket also gives access to the superb archaeological museum and excellent museum of the ancient Games.