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Ancient Olympia | A sacre worship place but also the venue of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

17 Mar 2014
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The oldest, most famous and glorified sanctuary in ancient Greece was undoubtedly the one of ancient Olympia, which over the years became a fixed meeting point for people from all over the world who were united under the same values and the same culture, the ancient Greek culture.


Ancient Olympia was located in the western Peloponnese, in a verdant valley, where the Alpheus River is joined with the tributary Kladeos, at the foot of the Kronios hill. It is an area full of trees: oaks, olive trees, pines and poplars. Due to this grove, the area was also called "Altis" (word with common root with the word “alsos” -grove in Greek). The landscape of ancient Olympia with its idyllic beauty even nowadays creates the feeling of a strange charm and tranquility, as if it invites all people to a peace aggrement. The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis in one of his books says, "There is no other landscape in Greece that so sweet and persistently motivates to peace and reconciliation, as the landscape of Olympia."




According to some ancient regional myths, ancient Olympia has bonds with both the West and the East. The connection with the West comes from a myth about the love of Alpheus River with the nymph Arethusa and their final mingling in a source that bears her name in Syracuse. One the other hand, a myth about the Lydian prince Pelops connects the ancient Olympia with the East. According to this myth, Pelops went from Phrygia to Olympia, he dominated the area, married Hippodameia, daughter of the Pisa’s king Oenomaus, after killing him. Thus, he gave his name to the island (Peloponnese = Island of Pelops) that until then was called “Apia”. After that, as the myth narrates, Pelops organized sporting events for the first time in this area. However, there are lots of other historical references and myths too involving gods and heroes about how and by whom the first games in ancient Olympia were established, which shows the significant influence of the games. For example, there is a typical myth about how the Olympian gods founded the games competing one another in various sports and another about how Hercules brought from the northern countries the sacred olive tree, that was planted in the sanctuary of Olympia.


As the excavations of buildings, tombs and other findings have shown, in the sanctuary of ancient Olympia there was a village full of life from the Early Helladic period until the Late Bronze Age (2800-1100 BC). This village turned into a religious area probably during the late Mycenaean era, as then we have historical clues for the worship of Pelops and Hippodameia. But even so, it isn’t still certain if they were holding sport competitions at this time. In any case, in accordance with the prehistoric finds in ancient Olympia, we can place in even earlier years the worship of Saturn, Rhea, Gaia, Themis and other gods related with fertility and divination, whose sanctuaries were gathered in the southern foot of the Kronios hill. During the Geometric period (11th-8th century BC) the Dorian invasion and their settlement in the region of Elis causes ethnic classifications and cultural changes. The Dorians introduce the worship of new gods, among whom the Olympian Zeus, who takes ownership of the temple of Saturn and gives its name to the ancient Olympia. There are indications that the sanctuary of Olympia was actually used this period and that they even organized some kind of local sporting events. It is also possible that the controversy between the Dorians and the inhabitants of Pisa, who owned the sanctuary until then, starts at this time. The games stopped a few years later but we don’t know the exact reasons for that.
Nevertheless, in Historical times, the king of Elis, Iphitus, after the suggestion of Delphi, decides to reorganize the sports games in ancient Olympia in cooperation with the Spartan legislator Lycurgus and the king of Pisa, Cleisthenes. He also sets that the games will take place every four years. In addition, he establishes the Sacred Truce, an institution that imposes conditions of peace shortly before, during and shortly after the games. The official opening of the Olympic Games is placed in 776 BC, as then for the very first time we have a list of the winners.




From the early Αrchaic period ancient Olympia is becoming nationwide center and attracts Greeks even from the most remote regions of the known world. The Persian Wars in the 5th century BC brought Olympia to top and make it a symbol of national unity, as the risk the Greeks faced, resulted in their common battle and the development of national consciousness. Consequently, more and more buildings were gradually added in ancient Olympia, other of them related to the gods’ worship and others to meet the growing administrative and organizational needs of the sanctuary. At the end of the 4th century BC the sanctuary takes its final architectural form, which is transformed and completed with new buildings during the Hellenistic and Roman period in order to satisfy the new needs and lifestyle of the time.



The sanctuary of ancient Olympia, the Sacred Altis, was separated from the rest of the area with a wall. Inside the wall there were temples (such as the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Hera or Heraion), altars, statues and buildings directly related to the worship of the gods (the Prytaneum, the Treasures etc.) whereas sports facilities (the Stadium, the hippodrome) and supporting buildings (such as the workshop of Phidias, the baths, the parliament, the residence of the priests named Theicoleon etc) were built outside the wall.

As a result ancient Olympia, with its continuous life for about 3,500 years, became the center of Hellenism, the place where the Olympic flame was first lit and the place where the Olympic spirit was born and the greatest sporting competitions in the world, the ancient Olympic Games, were hosted.



Dimi NtouranidouWritten by Dimi Ntouranidou

Graduate teacher of Greek literature (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Literary editor of publications, Responsible for writing articles about the ancient Olympic Games   

Images of the ancient Greek Olympic Games blog are taken from the Ancient Greek Olympic Games Comic. In the Ancient Olympic Games Comic you will find much more about the ancient Olympic Games while having fun reading a wonderful comic story. You can download a sample episode of the comic here.
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