Ancient Olympia was a sacred site, located 20 kilometers east of Pyrgos on the Peloponnese – dedicated mainly to Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods. The Olympic Games were a panhellenic event – an offering to the gods and honoring the greatness of Zeus.

Modern day Olympia is a popular tourist attraction, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989. I visited in April 2023 with countless oleander plants in full bloom.

The temple of Zeus as it probably looked in classical times. Drawing by Friedrich Adler, 1896.

The sanctuary of Olympia evolved gradually on the southern slopes of the Kronos hill, at the confluence of the Alpheus river with its tributary, the Kladeus. As early as the third millennium BCE there was a settlement in the area of the sanctuary. In Mycenaean times (1600 – 1100 BCE) it is clear that a wider area was inhabited. The sanctuary began to take shape during the 10th – 9th century BCE. The first monumental buildings were erected in Archaic times (7th – 6th century BCE). New buildings were gradually added in order to meet the ever increasing requirements of the sanctuary. During the Classical period (5th – 4th century BCE) the sanctuary reached its peak and by the end of the 4th century BCE the area had achieved its final form.

The Olympic Games, established in 776 BCE according to tradition, played an important role in the architectural planning of the place. Additions and alterations were made to the architectural arrangement during the Hellenistic period (3rd – 1st century BCE) and in Roman imperial times (end of the 1st century BCE – 3rd century CE).

The sanctuary itself, the Altis, was separated from the rest of the area by a precinct wall and was entered through three main gates, two on the west and one on the south side. The wall enclosed the temples and buildings that were directly connected with the cult. Outside the wall stood the buildings serving the needs of visitors of the sanctuary and of the athletes during the Olympic Games (priests’ houses, baths, hostels, gymnasium, palaestra, etc.). Activities in the Altis were greatly limited with the edict forbidding the festivals of the great sanctuaries in CE 393. The destruction of the monuments was ordered by imperial decree in CE 426, and the devastation was completed by an earthquake that struck the region during the 6th century CE, or, as some researcher recently suggest, by a series of tsunamis that flooded the whole area.

Ground plan of Olympia on the display board on site.