The Olympic Games took place here for at least 1000 years, held every four years until their abolition by Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393. Today, the Olympic flame continues to be lit here for the modern Games. Thanks to the destruction ordered by Theodosius II and various subsequent earthquakes, little remains of the magnificent temples and athletic facilities, but enough exists to give you a hint of this World Heritage–listed sanctuary’s former glory. The ancient site is a signposted five-minute walk from the modern village.
Wandering amid the tree-shaded ruins, you can almost picture the blood and smoke of oxen sacrificed to Zeus and Hera; the sweaty, oiled-up athletes waiting inside the original stadium; the jostling crowds; and the women and slaves watching the proceedings from a nearby hill. It’s worth remembering that some buildings preceed others by centuries; a visit to the archaeological museum beforehand will provide context and help with visualising the ancient buildings.
The first ruin encountered is the gymnasium , which dates from the 2nd century BC. South of here are the columns of the partly restored palaestra (wrestling school), where contestants practised and trained. The next building was the theokoleon (priests’ house). Behind it is Pheidias’ workshop , where the gargantuan ivory-and-gold Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sculpted. The workshop was identified by archaeologists after the discovery of tools and moulds. Beyond the theokoleon is the leonidaion , an elaborate structure that accommodated dignitaries.
The Altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus , lies east of the path. Its most important building was the immense 5th-century Doric Temple of Zeus , which enshrined Pheidias’ statue, later removed to Constantinople by Theodosius II (where it was destroyed by fire in AD 475). One column of the temple has been restored and re-erected, and helps put into perspective the sheer size of the structure.
South of the Temple of Zeus is the bouleuterion (council house), which contains the altar of oaths , where competitors swore to abide by the rules decreed by the Olympic Senate and not to commit foul play.
East of the temple is the echo portico , with a Doric colonnade leading towards the stadium. Its remarkable acoustics meant that a sound uttered within was repeated seven times. Just east of the portico are the remains of a lavish villa used by Emperor Nero during his participation in the Games in 67 AD; it replaced the original Sanctuary of Hestia.
The stadium lies to the east of the Altis and is entered through a stone archway. It’s rectangular, unlike today’s stadiums, and the stone start and finish lines of the 120m sprint track and the judges’ seats still survive. The stadium could seat at least 45,000 spectators. Slaves and women spectators, however, had to be content to watch from outside on the Hill of Kronos.
To the north of the Temple of Zeus was the pelopion , a small, wooded hillock with an altar to Pelops, the first hero of the Olympic Games. It was surrounded by a wall containing the remains of its Doric portico. Many artefacts now displayed in the museum were found on the hillock.
Further north is the 6th-century Doric Temple of Hera , the site’s most intact structure. Hera was worshipped along with Rea until the two were superseded by Zeus. The Hermes statue was found here.
To the east of this temple is the nymphaeum (AD 156–60), erected by the wealthy Roman banker Herodes Atticus. Typical of buildings financed by Roman benefactors, it was grandiose, consisting of a semicircular building with Doric columns flanked at each side by a circular temple. The building contained statues of Herodes Atticus and his family, though Zeus took centre stage. Despite its elaborate appearance, the nymphaeum had a practical purpose; it was a fountain house supplying Olympia with fresh spring water.
Just in front of the nymphaeum is the spot where the altar of Hestia would have maintained a continuous fire during the Games, symbolising the fire stolen from the gods by Prometheus; fires were also lit in the temples of Zeus and Hera. Today, the Olympic Flame is lit where the Temple of Hestia once stood.
Beyond the nymphaeum and up a flight of stone steps, a row of 12 treasuries stretched to the stadium, each erected by a city-state for use as a storehouse for offerings to the gods; these were mainly used to advertise the city-state’s prestige and wealth.
At the bottom of these steps are the scant remains of the 5th-century-BC metroön , a temple dedicated to Rea, the mother of the gods. Apparently the ancients worshipped Rea in this temple with orgies.
The foundations of the philippeion , west of the Temple of Hera, are the remains of a circular construction with Ionic columns built by Philip of Macedon to commemorate the Battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), where he defeated a combined army of Athenians and Thebans. The building contained gold-and-ivory-covered statues of Philip and his family, including his son, Alexander the Great.
North of the philippeion was the prytaneum , the magistrate’s residence. Here, winning athletes were entertained and feasted.