The main reason I wanted to come to Greece was to put visuals to the stories that I learned in Latin class in high school as well as what I’ve read in my free time, and no matter what book you read or story you here, the Olympics are often mentioned. And now it was time to see the site where it all began.
The first civilization began in Olympia 4,000 years ago, the first temples were built 3,000 years ago and the Roman baths located to the side of the territory were built 2,000 years ago. Olympia has been used throughout the ages by many, many people, and served not only as an athletic location but also as a religious one.
The Olympics began in 776 BC in Olympia, and took place every 4 years to unite all the Greek city-states in a friendly competition. To make sure that everyone would be able to attend without any difficulties, the city-states agreed to create what they called the Olympic Truce, meaning that no fighting would go on the few months before and after the Olympics to ensure safe passage for all. Everyone would could come would come because this was the event go see and be seen at.
Olympia was never a city; instead, Olympia served as a sacred land where Greek citizens could come together every four years to participate in religious activities and cheer on the athletes (who were all soldiers) from their city-state. Those who won were gifted a wreath of olive leaves (not laurel leaves) in the Temple of Zeus, which was a high honor as only priests were normally allowed inside. There was only one winner, so nothing was given to those who came in second or third. However, if you lost, you were not seen as a loser, since even being able to compete in the Olympic games was considered a great honor for your city-state and the competition pleased the gods.
Speaking of the Temple of Zeus, the statue that used to be inside was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World since it was built using ivory, gold, and jewels. The temple that housed it was on the Olympic grounds, since the games were dedicated to him and meant to please him. When the temple was built in the early 5th century BC, the columns reached 40 feet in the air and was very ornately decorated. Now all that stands are some reconstruction and stones of the temple, as well as one standing pillar. That pillar was reconstructed for the 2004 Olympics (which took place in Greece) because one or two events were held at the original Olympic stadium and the Greek government knew that a lot of people would be visiting the site.
Also in Olympia is the Temple of Hera, which is on the opposite side of the grounds. It is here, in front of her temple, where the Olympic flame is lit, even today. In the olden times, there was no need for a torch lighting ceremony because the Vestal Virgins made sure that there was an eternal flame next to her temple. Her temple was also there because after the Olympics, there would be a sort-of women’s Olympics where only women could attend and participate; these were called the Hernian Games, named after Hera. And no, the women did not compete naked.
Mom pretending to light the Olympic flame
The Olympic games were only for men, and generally, only soldiers competed since they were the strongest and fastest of their city-state. Each athlete would compete completely naked (except for the kick-boxers who wore underwear and gloves) and the athletes competing in hand to hand combat sports bathed themselves in olive oil and sand. This was to make them slick and difficult to catch or pin down, but not impossible. At the end of each match, these men would go to the massage room to scrape off this paste which hardened on their skin in the hot sun with metal spatula-like devices. Sounds pleasant.
The games were put on every four years beginning in 776 BC, continuing through the Roman times, and ending in 393 AD, when the Christians shut it down because it was considered to be a pagan ritual.
Luckily for us in the modern day, the games began again in 1896 and took place in Athens. Although there were not 100 cows sacrificed or all wars called off for safe passage, the modern games have many more events than the original 10 (??? LOOK THIS UP) and now have participants from all over the world, not just Greece. In 1936, the Olympics brought back the Olympic Flame, at the behest of Hitler no less, when the games were held in Berlin. Since then, there is an elaborate ceremony every two years (for the summer and winter Olympics) in front of the Temple of Hera which marks the beginning of the running of the Olympic flame to the next destination.
The site also still has the original track, built 4,000 years ago, which my mom and I took a lap on (I won).
It was amazing, and unfathomable, to stand on the same ground that people stood on many thousands of years ago, and trying to imagine what it could have looked like during that time. The site is much larger than I thought it was going to be and has many more buildings than I thought it would have. We spent our last thirty minutes there meandering through the site, seeing what we didn’t on our guided tour, and taking photos.
We also got a chance to walk through the small Olympic museum which is located walking distance from the site, which houses statues, maps, and recreations of what the site might have looked like 4,000 years ago. My favorite thing in the museum was the display of all the small statues they found at the site shaped like cows (which is what was sacrificed to the gods before the games began) as offerings to Zeus and Hera.
Before heading on to Nafplion, our home for the next two days, we had a quick lunch with the group at the restaurant right outside the archeological site. As usual, I had a delicious vegetarian meal and mom had a disappointing meat dish. Being vegetarian pays, kids.
After that, we all packed up in the bus and watched the fallen columns disappear in the rear-view mirror as we headed on to the former capital of Greece: Nafplion.