There is something strangely compelling even spellbinding about Olympia, Greece. This may seem an obvious statement in one of the world’s great archaeological sites but exploring the crumbling ruins it is actually harder to pinpoint the reasons than anticipated.
It is of course a world heritage site but appears more ‘run-down’ than other similar sites. In many cases the ruins of the many assorted temples and other buildings are little more than foundation stones. They are ‘arranged’ in a disorderly fashion around the area and it is slightly more difficult to imagine them in their former glory.
“scattered around the site like discarded toys in a giant infant’s playroom”
The historical importance of Olympia is without question. The home of the original games and the starting point for the Olympic flame of the modern era before it travels to the location of the next gathering of the world’s elite athletes.
Known originally as the Altis, and is the site of some of Greece’s most important ancient buildings, both Zeus and Hera had temples here. The ruins of famous monuments such as the Pelopion as scattered around the site like discarded toys in a giant infant’s playroom. A little exploration and the hippodrome and stadium will also be discovered.
It was also the site of the huge ‘Statue of Zeus’ calved in ivory and gold which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Today it is only viewable in a ‘holographic’ style image in the nearby museum.
It is a large site and is situated in an area of outstanding beauty and during my visit there were few other visitors. The silence of the location allowed my imagination to try to ‘restore’ the site to its former glory. This was simplified within the stadium, as there were several visitors running the length of the arena and without too much effort they easily became ancient Greek athletes with 20,000 spectators cheering them to victory.
“they were also usually required to compete naked”
This is keeping with the first games which were a single sprint, other races and sports including boxing, wrestling and pentathlon being added later. Chariot racing was even included in various games. To qualify athletes needed to be young and speak the Greek language, they were also usually required to compete naked. The games were a festival to celebrate the human body, fortunately the modern day ‘athletes’ present that day did not follow tradition.
The reason this place is so special is probably down to the sheer number of ancient monuments that are here, it is unlikely there are many sites quite like it anywhere in the world.
It was October when I visited so it was relatively quiet. Olympia is one of Greece’s most popular attractions. There are often scores of tourists here, disembarking convoys of coaches and even from cruise ships from the nearby port of Katakolo.
The museum located on the site is chock full of fascinating artefacts, from ancient weaponry, armour and impressive statues. Visiting the site and not the museum would be a mistake as there are so many notable exhibits. These include the Nike of Paeonius, pediments from the Temple of Zeus and the helmet of Miltiades along with countless pieces of terracotta and collections from the Olympic games.
Modern Greece has come to the aid of the ancient world, for those unable to picture how Olympia once appeared, there is an answer.
The Hellenic Cosmos in Athens is a cool interactive museum but its star exhibits are the ‘virtual reality’ theatres which provide visitors with a glimpse of the ancient world. It is possible to take a tour around several ancient cities but having previously visited Olympia it was this tour which struck the greatest chord with me.
“just 5 years it is likely visitors will be able to compete”
The displays are impressively realistic and it is possible to instruct the operator in which direction to travel, enabling visits to individual buildings and even rooms. To be taking this ‘tour’ through the Temples of Zeus, past the Nike of Paeonius and then watch some games in the stadium a few days after visiting the original site was fascinating.
The displays are continually being updated and more powerful graphic engines being employed, in 10 or maybe even just 5 years it is likely visitors will be able to compete!
An opportunity to return to Olympia afterwards would have given me an entirely different perspective of the ruins.
This is my kind of museum, most of the exhibits are interactive and for this reason it is popular with children and me. Being able to see how something works and getting to understand by trying it, is preferable to just peering at a static display and reading a plinth. This makes the difference between a good museum and an excellent one, the best educate without being boring.
I was given a full guided tour by the museum director, his obvious enthusiasm was infectious and it is probably the pride of the staff which is a main ingredient for success. It is an ambitious and on-going project which is only approximately halfway to completion. One of the most interesting displays is located in the entrance, an interactive screen which details the scale of the plans.
It will require a great deal of money however to see the project through to completion, considering the current financial climate in Greece this funding maybe in jeopardy. It will be a great shame if this popular, interesting and educational museum is not completed.
I hope to visit again and hopefully witness it at various stages of completion before eventually being present at the grand opening of the final exhibition hall.