The First Olympics

Today, we visited the ancient sanctuary of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games. The first known game, part of the Festival of Zeus, took place in 776 B.C. and had only one event: an approximately 200 meter long foot race. Other events, like wrestling and chariot racing, were added over time and the games continued every four years at Olympia until the end of the 4th century A.D. when the then Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, a Christian, banned all pagan festivals.

We walked the grounds of the sanctuary and the museum that is maintained there for two hours, entering through the ruins of the Paleastra, the wrestling school:

The Paleastra was a square columned structure, enclosed by a roof. Many of the columns have been reerected.

The wildflowers are in bloom and Kelly blended in nicely there in the center of the Paleastra square.

Not far from the Paleastra the Greeks built a studio for the artist that had been commissioned to create a massive sculpture of Zeus, but the Romans built a basilica on top of it, using the foundation of the earlier Greek structure for their church. This is one of the clearest examples we have seen contrasting the Greek and Roman construction methods (Greek on bottom, Roman on top):

We stopped in the museum at the end of our visit to Olympia, where they had a model of the entire sanctuary, as well as an amazing collection of artifacts that had been unearthed during the excavations that were undertaken here by German archeologists, beginning in the 1800s. The ruins were well preserved and artifacts were in abundance, largely due to the fact that sometime in antiquity, a nearby river had changed course, resulting in almost 20 feet of silt, sand and debris covering the entire sanctuary.

Here’s the model of the grounds. The Paleastra is the square building on the left; the square building on the right was the Leonidaeum, a hotel where visiting dignitaries stayed during their time here. In between the Paleastra and the Leonidaeum was the sculptor’s studio with the Roman basilica built on top of it.

The other structures to take note of in the model, above, are the white temple in the center of the photograph – the Temple of Zeus – and the Stadium (the orange long oval) at the top of the picture – that’s where the Olympic Games were held for over 1,000 years at Olympia.

Here’s a photo of the ruins of the Leonidaeum. It must have been a magnificent structure, complete with a beautiful pool in the center, the outline and shell of which are nearly undisturbed.

We walked around the Temple of Zeus, the subject of my next post, to the Stadium. Here’s the entrance to the Stadium:

And here’s the Stadium, itself, capable of seating 45,000 people on its earthen embankments; there were only a few benches and they were for the judges or umpires, about midfield.

The sports field was originally situated so that race began at the Temple of Zeus, but in the 4th century B.C., the field was moved eastward to its current location and the Stadium was built around it. The Stadium encloses a field that is 690 feet long and 105 feet wide – designed for 20 runners to stand abreast at the start of the race.

In the early centuries of the Olympics, the contestants all participated in the nude. So, with that in mind, I’ll leave you with this picture of the flip side of the statute of Dionysus that Dale took in the on-site museum:

Everybody else in the museum seemed to be more interested in Dionysus’ other side.

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