Olympia (Greece)

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Sanctuary plan

Olympia ( ancient Greek Ὀλυμπία ) was the sanctuary of Zeus in Elis , in the northwest of the Peloponnese peninsula . It was the site of the ancient Olympic Games . On the edge of the ancient sanctuary is the modern city of Archea Olymbia .


Early days

The land at the confluence of the Kladeos and Alpheios has a long history of settlement. The oldest ceramic finds in the area of ​​the stadium can be dated to the fourth millennium BC, i.e. the end of the Neolithic or the beginning of the Chalcolithic . This makes Olympia, next to Ajios Dimitrios, a place near Lepreon , the second place in Elis , for which such an early at least temporary settlement can be proven. Furthermore, ceramic shards from the Early Helladic Era I and II, i.e. from the third millennium BC, can be found in the area of ​​the stadium . Under the Pelopion- Temenos , around 200 meters west of the stadium, there is a large prehistoric tumulus . Its summit was probably already lowered in prehistoric times or in ancient times by stone robbery and erosion , but it also suffered from modern excavations. Archaeologists dated the tumulus to around 2600/2500 BC. The tumulus was followed by a settlement of apsidal houses , the buildings II, III, IV and V of which were erected on a layer of alluvial sand, as was shown by the stratigraphic analysis. According to this, the apsidal houses are dated to the beginning of the Early Helladic III, i.e. around 2200 BC. The ceramic finds made there point to a use up to the late Early Helladic III, around 2000 BC. Other Early Helladic sherds were found in the valley of the Kladeos and near the New Museum of Olympia. They suggest that as early as the third millennium BC, the area was exposed to greater human habitation. The pottery created by the residents of the settlement on the Altis was decorated with non-Helladic decorative motifs. These pottery, decorated with incisions and punctures, could on the one hand indicate an influence of the Dalmatian- based Cetina culture , but on the other hand also indicate southern Italy, so that the settlers of Olympia may have been in contact with them.

Buildings II, III and V make it seem likely that the settlement fell victim to a fire disaster. Afterwards, new right-angled houses without apse-shaped ends were built on the foundation walls of the apsidal houses I, II and V. They can be dated to the early Middle Helladic I. In the area of ​​the Altis, individual sherds of the Middle Helladic II and III have been identified, but they are without any specific context. The settlement in the area of ​​the Altis was not abandoned in the Middle Helladic I, but relocated to higher elevations to protect it from flooding. This settlement area was on the sandstone hill in the northeast of the stadium wall and on the foothills of the southeast slope of the Kronos hill . For the residents of the new village, the tumulus no longer had any significance as a place of worship, as the clay quarrying on its northern edge shows. Children's burials in Pithoi also date from the time of the rectangular houses . However, this settlement was already abandoned in the Middle Helladic period I due to the risk of flooding and relocated to the south-eastern slope of the Kronos Hill and to a small valley north of the stadium area.

Only a few finds from the Mycenaean period come from under the rubble of the old excavations. The question of the existence of purely Mycenaean layers, however, is still unresolved, as no serious investigations in this direction, for example on the treasure house terrace, have yet been undertaken. In the immediate vicinity of Olympia, in the area behind the new museum, late Mycenaean chamber tombs were discovered (up to 1998 a total of 13 pieces). Century BC BC ( Late Helladic III C) and suggest a still undiscovered Mycenaean settlement nearby.

Establishment and further history of the sanctuary of Olympia

The history of the settlement breaks with the establishment of the sanctuary at this point, as no human habitation was allowed in the area dedicated to Zeus . The establishment of the place of worship in honor of the father of the gods was based on older traditions. The Kronos hill was already understood as a place of divine powers before the Doric migration . So were chthonic gods , especially the goddess Ge , which retained a place in the sanctuary of Olympia in the further course of history, already venerated in this place. The power of prophecy passed over to the oracle of Zeus. However, this could never reach the importance of Delphi . The sanctuary of Zeus thus combined the Olympic cult with older local traditions.

While the sanctuary around the middle of the 11th century BC BC, the first evidence of the holding of regular competitions comes from the time shortly before the beginning of the 7th century BC. The monumental buildings were given their final form in the 4th century BC. BC, but also in the Hellenistic and Roman epochs were built. In the year 426 AD, the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II finally had the Olympic Games and ordinations banned in order to combat paganism after his grandfather Theodosius I had already issued a ban in 393. Apparently the sanctuary of Zeus has now been destroyed. However, there are indications that competitions continued secretly and at a lower level until the 6th century, until an earthquake in 551 destroyed the place of worship and after flooding by the Kladeos it disappeared under mud and rubble. According to a more recent hypothesis by Andreas Vött, which is based on geological investigations, particularly the sediment deposits , a tsunami could also be the reason for the destruction of Olympia in the 6th century. However, Vött's hypothesis also met with contradiction in research. It is certain that Olympia experienced an economic boom until the middle of the 6th century, which only came to an end with the earthquake of 551 and the Justinian plague . Repeated flooding caused the settlement to be abandoned in the early 7th century.

In the following two centuries the site was covered by a layer of sand up to five meters high. Interest in the ancient place of worship only reawakened in modern times. Olympia was rediscovered in 1766, and systematic excavations under German leadership finally began in 1874. Decades after the uncovering of numerous cult buildings on the site, Olympia was finally included in the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage sites .

A large part of the tree population around the ancient sites was destroyed in severe forest fires in August 2007, and the museum only narrowly escaped destruction. In the meantime, extensive reforestation has taken place.


Reconstruction of the Altis (around 1900)
Altis floor plan

The Altis, the sacred grove of Olympia, is the name for the core area of ​​the sanctuary of Olympia. One of the original germ cells of the cult at the Altis was the "Pelopion" a tumulus from the early Bronze Age, the Hercules the Pelops is said to have piled up - cultic core of the altar of Zeus . No actual grave was found under the mound. The sacrifice, the main component of cultic veneration, was made in the open in front of the great altar of Zeus east or south-east of the Pelopion. Halfway through the Olympic Games, one hundred oxen were slaughtered there and burned in honor of Zeus. The ashes mixed with the water of the Alpheios were pressed and piled on the altar in a large heap, which over the centuries grew into a stately mountain. Another nucleus of the cult was a crevice at the foot of the Kronos Hill, where the Olympic oracle originally dedicated to a female deity was, which was later adopted by Zeus. This oracle also played a role in historical times.

Several temples and altars were built in the sanctuary over a long period of time , at which sacrifices were made to numerous gods - Pausanias lists 69. In the north, on a slightly raised terrace at the foot of the Kronos Hill , numerous treasure houses of Greek city-states were lined up, and to the west of it was the Prytaneion .

Numerous votive offerings , often from captured weapons and armor, were found in the Altis . Statues of Zeus or Nike were also donated as thanks for a successful war . Pausanias also reports on numerous other foundations, including several statues from various poleis and buildings such as the Philippeion donated by the Macedonians . In the course of time, the Altis became increasingly rich in votive gifts , which were often donated in the form of statues as thanks for Olympic victories and extensively listed and explained by Pausanias. The Altis, the Temenos Olympias, was created in the 4th century BC. With a wall with probably five gates.

Outside the Temenos numerous other buildings for the administration and operation of the sanctuary as well as competition facilities were built. The Buleuterion (6th century BC) was the seat of the Olympic Council. The largest building in Olympia was the Leonidaion , a guest house from the 4th century BC. For about 150 people, which was rebuilt in Roman times. There was a palaestra (3rd century BC) as a training facility for athletes and a gymnasium (2nd century BC) with a magnificent propylon for athletic competitions . In addition to a bathhouse from Greek times, several thermal baths were built in Roman times . A building from the 5th century could be identified as the workshop of Phidias, in which the monumental statue of Zeus for the temple was made , among other things by workshop waste found next to it . The stadium in which the races took place was relocated outside of the actual Altis after the temple of Zeus was built. The largest facility was the hippodrome , which, later washed away by the neighboring river Alpheios, has not been preserved, but could probably be located in 2008 through geophysical measurements.

Selected buildings from Olympia

Temple of Hera

Temple of Hera
Doric capital from the Temple of Hera (east side, 4th column from south)

The Temple of Hera is located in the northern part of the Altis and is the oldest peripteral temple in the sanctuary and one of the earliest Doric temples in Greece. It was built around 600 BC. From the Triphylian city ​​of Skillous . In the early 4th century AD, the temple was destroyed by an earthquake and never restored.

The 50.01 x 18.76 meter large building on the stylobate had a relatively elongated floor plan with a ring hall of 6 by 16 columns. The pillars were initially made of wood and were only gradually replaced by stone ones, each in the style of the time. This explains why the pillars look completely different. Even during the Roman Empire , Pausanias observed a wooden column in the Opisthodom . The walls were made of stone in the base area and above them were built of mud bricks in an ancient way. The wall tongues, called ante , were clad with wooden boards, as testified by mortises, to protect the mud walls at the edges. The entablature above the pillars must have been made of wood, as no remains have been preserved. A so-called laconic roof covered the building. The gables were crowned by disc-shaped acroters made of clay, which had a diameter of 2.5 meters and were each fired from one piece.

Pausanias reports on two cult images inside the temple: a seated Hera and a standing Zeus. The temple was also used to store a variety of objects, such as numerous images of gods and other votive gifts. One of the few items that still exist today is the Hermes des Praxiteles , on display in the Museum of Olympia. In the temple of Hera there was also the table on which the winners' wreaths were laid out during the Olympic competitions. The Olympic flame for the modern Olympic Games has been lit at the Heraaltar since 1936 .

Temple of Zeus

Reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus (around 1900)

Between 472 and 456 BC The builder Libon von Elis built the temple of Zeus. The ring hall temple with its 6 by 13 columns was 64 by 28 meters measured on the stylobate and is one of the most important buildings of early classical architecture. A porous shell limestone in the vicinity of Olympia served as building material. All visible surfaces were then covered with a thin, only about 1 mm thick stucco, and individual structural elements were colored. The roof covering including the edge of the roof ( sima ) and the lion's head gargoyle was originally made of Parian marble , but individual links were replaced in pentelic marble during later repairs in accordance with the style of the time.

The pediments of the temple were decorated with marble sculptures. A local legend - the race between Oinomaos and Pelops - is depicted as the theme in the east gable . Zeus appears in the middle as the fate determiner: he turns to the right to Pelops, who will win the race. The battle of the Lapiths against the Centaurs during the wedding of Peirithoos is shown in the west gable . The fate determining god is Apollo in this pediment . The metopes above the pronaos and opisthodom show the twelve deeds of Heracles in relief . Pediment sculptures and metopes are some of the most important surviving representatives of the strict style .

In the cella of the temple stood the more than 12 meter high Zeus statue of Phidias made of gold and ivory, which in ancient times was counted among the seven wonders of the world .

For the 2004 Olympic Games, one of the approximately 10.55 m high columns of the Temple of Zeus, the second column on the north side (N 12) counted from the west, was re-erected to give an impression of the size of the building. Missing drums were made of new shell limestone, while missing sections of artificial stone were added to the preserved column drums. Extensive additions have been made to the capital so that only a few parts of the original surface are visible.

To the west of the Temple of Zeus, the Hippodameion is assumed; but it could not be found until today.

Phidias's workshop

About a hundred meters west of the temple there is a building about 32 m long and about 14.5 m wide. The fact that this building is the workshop in which Phidias created the statue of Zeus would not have been recognized without the description of Pausanias. Excavations, however, uncovered numerous remains of the process necessary for the production of the gold-ivory image, which document the use of the building. Negative forms and remains of glass were found, so that traces of the former appearance of the statue, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, can be gained. Probably in order to check the effect of the statue of Zeus, the dimensions of the workshop correspond almost exactly to the cella of the temple, even if it could not be completely assembled in the workshop due to the lack of foundations. The side aisles in the cella seem to have corresponded to working platforms. The walls were originally made of adobe bricks above a plinth made of ashlar. They were probably replaced by brickwork after an earthquake in the 3rd century AD. The edge of the roof formed a sima , which was decorated with a lotus blossom palmette frieze ( anthemion ) in relief. In early Byzantine times, at the beginning of the 5th century AD, the building was converted into a church and the large old doorway was replaced by an apse .


The Olympic Stadium today
Entrance to the stadium

After the excavations in 1961, the stadium was restored to the shape it had in the 4th century BC. Had received (stadium phase III). Compared to the previous stadium (II), it was moved 75 meters to the northeast. In total, the stadium was 213 meters long. The length of the running track was 192.24 meters, measured between the grooves of the starting thresholds that are still preserved today, which were needed on both sides, because one ran over two lengths and the goal was always in the direction of the Altis, measured 192.24 meters, its width about 31 to 32 Meter. It is surrounded by simple grass walls that could seat around 45,000 spectators. A small tribune was built from stone on one long side, which served the judges and on the opposite side a stone altar, which was reserved for the highest priestess of the Temple of Hera (Demeter). A vaulted corridor that led from the Altis under the western visitor wall served as access for the athletes. The ancient length of a stadium was 600 feet and, depending on the region, corresponds to a length between 176.50 and 197 meters. During the competitions in the direction of Zeus Altar, d. H. walked towards the Altis.

More buildings

  • Echo hall
  • Gymnasion (2nd (?) Century BC)
  • Metroon (early 4th century BC)
  • Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus (2nd century AD)
  • Palaestra (3rd century BC)
  • Philippeion (rotunda, 4th century BC)
  • Prytaneion (seat of Olympic dignitaries, 5th century B.C.)
  • Treasure houses (From the beginning of the 6th century to the middle of the 5th century BC, eleven or twelve treasure houses, resembling small temples, were built on the narrow terrace created on the northern edge of the Altis.)
  • Zeus altar

Research history

Rediscovery and first digs

Already in the Renaissance the sunken Olympia returned to consciousness through the study of ancient sources, but it was mainly perceived as the epitome of sporting competition. This aroused the interest of various scholars to rediscover the place. For example, the monk and scholar Bernard de Montfaucon was prompted by the description of Pausanias to think about a possible excavation. In 1723 he wrote a letter to Quirini, the archbishop of Corfu , who was considered a connoisseur of antiquity, in order to work towards an excavation, although the exact location of Olympia was not yet known. Also encouraged by Pausanias, Johann Joachim Winckelmann planned to carry out excavations in 1768, hoping that a large number of sculptures could be found in Olympia that would enrich knowledge of art. However, his death thwarted this project.

The English theologian and travel scholar Richard Chandler was the first scientist to actually visit the site in 1766. He found the remains of the Olympian Temple of Zeus. In the period that followed, numerous smaller investigations were carried out at this location. The French Louis Fauvel , for example, created the first topographical sketch and description of the area in 1787. This was followed by the English archaeologists William Martin Leake , who conducted research in Olympia in 1805, Edward Dodwell and William Gell , who in 1806 carried out a first small excavation on the remains of the Temple of Zeus. In 1813, Spencer Stanhope and his architect Thomas Allason created a topographical map of the area on the basis of systematic measurements. The most extensive of these investigations was carried out by the Expedition scientifique de Morée . The naturalists and artists arrived in the Peloponnese in 1829 in the wake of French troops who fought in the Greek War of Independence . In a few weeks they excavated parts of the Temple of Zeus. They took some of the temple's metopes with them to Paris, where they are in the Louvre collection . However, all these research efforts and excavations remained limited in their effect.

German excavations in Olympia

The workers of the first German excavation (1875/1876).
The excavation field from the north.

The activities of the Berlin archaeologist Ernst Curtius marked a turning point in the exploration of Olympia . He lived in Athens from 1837 to 1840 and also attended Olympia during this time. In 1852 he gave a lecture at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin , in which he explained the importance of the sanctuary of Olympia and his wish for an excavation at this location. Among the audience were Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, two of the most important researchers of the time, who subsequently supported the company, and also the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. However, the preparations could not be followed up due to the Crimean War . After Curtius had received a call to the Berlin University in 1868, the company was resumed at the suggestion of King Wilhelm I. From 1872 the planning was intensified when Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm commissioned the Royal Museums with the preparations. The excavation in Olympia was supposed to be a prestige project of the newly founded German Empire . In 1874 the excavation contract was signed by the German and Greek governments and then approved by the two parliaments. The contract was innovative and trend-setting, as the German Empire agreed with Greece that all finds should remain there. Only a few objects that existed in series or were given by Greece came to Germany. This treaty marked a milestone in the development from treasure hunt to historical science. However, the agreement was not undisputed. Greeks saw the ancient sites as an indispensable part of their own identity, while in Germany the scientific character and the associated lack of equipment in the museums that competed with the institutions in the other capitals were criticized. So was opposed Otto von Bismarck against the financing, but could not prevail.

The German excavation from 1875 to 1881 was directed by a board of directors in Berlin, which included the archaeologists Ernst Curtius , the architect Friedrich Adler and the diplomat and orientalist Clemens August Busch as representatives of the Foreign Office, which informed them by letter of the events in Olympia has been. The on-site excavations were carried out by young archaeologists in the service of the Royal Museums, with management changing several times. They included Gustav Hirschfeld , Rudolf Weil , Georg Treu , Adolf Furtwängler , Karl Purgold and the architects Adolf Boetticher , Richard Bohn , Wilhelm Dörpfeld and Hans Schleif . In the years 1875 to 1881 excavation campaigns lasting several months took place in which up to 450 Greek workers from the area took part. The aim of the excavations was no longer to obtain art-historical finds, but to uncover the Altis so that the monuments could be seen in their local context. With the help of stratigraphic observations, the contexts obtained in this way were periodized historically and phase plans were drawn up. Between 1890 and 1897 the excavation results were published in five volumes. The finds were exhibited in the new museum built between 1883 and 1885 according to plans by Friedrich Adler . The exhibits included the Nike des Paionios , the praxitelic Hermes and the gable figures of the Temple of Zeus. The museum building was financed by the Athens banker Andreas Syngros . In Germany, the excavations were accompanied by numerous newspaper articles. Despite the few finds that reached Berlin, Olympia was an important point of reference for the capital's cultural self-image. The architecture of the Temple of Zeus was included in various designs for a new museum building on Museum Island and for the central pavilion of the 1886 Academy of Arts anniversary exhibition .

History of excavations in the 20th century and the present

Even after the first major excavation campaign in 1881, research continued in Olympia. Between 1906 and 1929 Wilhelm Dörpfeld undertook smaller excavations at irregular intervals. These were financed from private donations. During these investigations Dörpfeld found prehistoric buildings in the area of ​​the sanctuary. Since 1936 there have been regular excavations again, which were now led by the German Archaeological Institute . The beginning of these excavations was in the context of the appropriation of Olympia by the National Socialists in the context of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. A preparatory investigation was carried out by Armin von Gerkan . Excavations then followed until 1943 under the direction of Emil Kunze and Hans Schleif . During this time, mainly the periphery of the sanctuary was exposed. The excavations then came to a standstill due to the Second World War , but Kunze resumed them at the beginning of the 1950s. From 1955 onwards, the historical phases of the sanctuary were examined with deep excavations. In addition, the workshop of Phidias was discovered. After Kunze, Alfred Mallwitz and, from 1985, Helmut Kyrieleis directed the excavations. In 1982 and 1983 a project by the Berlin Collection of Antiquities examined the investigation of an antique workshop for bronze statues. Reinhard Senff has been in charge of the excavations at the German Archaeological Institute since 2004 . In July 2008, the University of Mainz announced that the ancient racecourse could be localized through geophysical measurements parallel to the stadium. The existence of a hippodrome in Olympia was previously only known from written sources.

Modern use

Ignition of the Olympic flame

The Olympic flame for the modern summer Olympic Games has been lit with a concave mirror in ancient Olympia since 1936 and then brought to the venue of the respective games by means of a torch relay lasting several weeks. The torch for the Winter Games is also lit at irregular intervals in the Olympics.

At the 2004 Olympic Games , the main venue of which was Athens , ancient Olympia was once again the venue for competitions. Despite the protests of the Central Archaeological Council , which feared damage to the excavation sites, the women's and men's shot put competitions took place there .


Web links

Commons : Olympia  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 181.
  2. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 182.
  3. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 183.
  4. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 193.
  5. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 186.
  6. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 187.
  7. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 198.
  8. Kyrieleis: Olympia 1875-2000. 125 years of German excavations. Mainz 2002, p. 200.
  9. Birgitta Eder : The beginnings of Elis and Olympia. On the settlement history of the Elis landscape at the transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age. In: Veronika Mitsopoulos-Leon : Research in the Peloponnese. Files from the symposium on the occasion of the celebration of “100 Years of the Austrian Archaeological Institute Athens”. Athens 5.3.-7.3.1998. Austrian Archaeological Institute, Athens 2001, p. 234f .; Berthold Fellmann : 100 years of German excavations in Olympia. Munich 1972, p. 9.
  10. ^ Fellmann, 100 years of German excavations in Olympia, Munich 1972, pp. 9 and 10.
  11. ^ Fellmann, 100 years of German excavations in Olympia, Munich 1972, p. 10.
  12. Andreas Vött: New geoarchaeological investigations into the burial of Olympias. An introduction to the Olympic tsunami hypothesis (= Torsten Mattern , Markus Trunk (Ed.): 23rd Trier Winckelmann Program 2011 ). Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2011, ISBN 978-3447069571
  13. A brief summary of the results on the website of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz .
  14. ^ So Gerassimos Papadopoulos: Tsunamis in the European-Mediterranean Region: From Historical Record to Risk Mitigation. Elsevier, Amsterdam 2016, p. 146 ff.
  15. Holger Baitinger: Weapons and armament from the Persian booty in Olympia . In: Archäologischer Anzeiger 1999, pp. 125–139 ( full text ).
  16. Pausanias, 5, 16, 1.
  17. Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 6.
  18. a b c d Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 10.
  19. a b c Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 12.
  20. Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 8.
  21. a b Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 13.
  22. a b c Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 14.
  23. Wilfried Stolze, 125 years of excavations at the Berlin museums in Olympia, Berlin 2000, p. 15.
  24. Die Welt: Horse Racecourse Discovered in Ancient Olympia , published July 4, 2008, accessed October 19, 2012.

Coordinates: 37 ° 38 ′ 17.6 "  N , 21 ° 37 ′ 50.9"  E