Honouring Zeus

The ancient city of Olympia has always been famous as the centre of worship of Zeus. But did you know that this was also the first place to host the Olympic games?

August 17, 2019 03:13 pm | Updated 03:13 pm IST

Often referred to as the cradle of Western civilisation, Greece is in south eastern Europe with thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas. On the Peloponnese peninsula is Elis the town where Olympia is situated. It became famous because of the archaeological site of the same name which lies close by, between the rivers — the Alpheus and the Claudeus.

According to Greek mythology, it was here at Olympia, that Zeus fought his father Kronos, for the rights of kingship. It was a testing ground for divine strength when Apollo faced the god of war, Ares in a boxing contest. And, Apollo raced Hermes, the wing footed messenger of the gods.

To honour Zeus, the people decided on a series of athletic competitions with representatives of all the Greek city-states. The city States in ancient Greece were constantly at war with each other. But once in four years in July, a sacred truce was established to hold this festival.

However, by the end of the 4th century the Games were suspended.

At this time, Olympia saw the destruction of over 70 or so temples. A few years later, in 522 and 551 earthquakes further damaged the ruins and in time, mudslides and silt from the Cladeus covered much of the area, helping to preserve the site.

The City of Olympia was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989.

Unearthing history

From 1829 to 1936 various expedition excavated here. The restoration of the stadium began and was completed in 1961.

The Altis, (derived from Elean meaning “the grove”) as the sanctuary was originally known, was an irregular quadrangular area. It is a disordered group of buildings, with the most important being the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Zeus and the Pelopion.

Olympia was also known for the gigantic chryselephantine (ivory and gold on a wooden frame) statue of Zeus. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Today, the ruins of Olympia spanning several hundred years stand silently among the trees. The Temple of Hera with its oversized Capitals on the Doric columns dates back to 7th BCE.

The Olympic stadium along with the hippodrome is now buried under the olive groves to the southeast were the main venues where athletic events took place.

In ancient times, participants from all corners of the Mediterranean made the pilgrimage to Olympia to pay tribute to Zeus, to forge friendships and alliances, and to enjoy or compete in poetry, music, and athletic events.

Presently, the statues are beautifully reconstructed inside the nearby Olympia museum alongside the metopes of the temple of Zeus, in one large room.

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