I’ve visited a lot of ancient Greek sites in my time but few have affected me as much as Ancient Olympia in the heart of the Peloponnesian peninsula.
Set in a wooded glade in the lea of a green mountain, Olympia is everything you might expect a site of world historical significance to be. Not only were the Olypmic games held here from at least 776BC but it was also the site of an ancient wonder of the world, the temple of Zeus that contained a fabulous statue created by Phidias. It was Phidias who also designed the statue of Athena within the Parthenon at the acropolis in Athens.
We had to bide our time before entering the sacred enclosure however, as a Mexican lady in the queue for tickets in front of us was convinced the ticket seller was trying to cheat her and her party of their entrance money. For half an hour she kept repeating “why would I come all this way to steal from you?” The bottom line was she thought that she had paid for twelve tickets and been issued ten. Eventually, the manager was called and all the money collected and ticket stubs were counted. As this was done, the queue grew from a few people to several dozen. More than one person grumbled and said “she wants two more tickets for her money, let’s all put in one-Euro each and buy them for her!”
Unfortunately, our desire to solve the problem was not matched by our organisational ability and this international crowd of visitors just stood in the hot sun and grumbled, much like a bunch of good British citizens. Perhaps the British influence on world culture is rather more profound than I had previously thought…
As expected, no errors were found but still the lady called for justice and demanded police involvement. Personally, I am a believer in cock-up rather than conspiracy at the root of this kind of dispute and finally another window opened and we gratefully purchased our tickets.
So long as you were a man and could speak Greek, you could take part in the Games however, one of the earliest recorded contests was a foot race for women who competed for the position of a priestess to the Gods. In latter times, men from across the known world competed for the status and honour of beating all comers.
In ancient times all competition was undertaken in the nude and as such was a celebration of aesthetics as much as muscle. I remember reading once that anyone who was “mutilated” could not participate in the Games and circumcision was considered a mutilation. At that time, circumcision in the Jewish community was merely the removal of the tip of the foreskin, so enterprising Greek speaking Jews would pull forward the remaining skin and literally tie a knot around what remained. Once spoil-sport Jewish priests discovered the practice, they started removing the entire foreskin of newborn boys; a practice that continues to this day. Anyway, I digress.
These days there is not much left of the Temple of Zeus other than the steps up to the platform on which it was built, a series of column bases and one rather magnificent reconstructed pillar. More remains of the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus although unfortunately, no nymphs were in evidence as I passed by. Also, I was rather taken by the romantic remains of the South Stoa or covered walkway. Another building on the site the I admired was the bath house, complete with wall mounted heating system, although in the heat of a Greek summer, it seemed quite unnecessary.
My neo-Spartan friend James, was in his element and decided to do quick circuit of the Olympic running track; in his bare feet, on a hot afternoon…
He assumed the position of an athlete about to fly around the circuit and took off at a fair lick. A hundred meters out, a shrill whistle blew a warning and then another. James looked in trouble. He slowed down, he stopped. He got off of the burning, sandy running track and on to the grass. Ooh! The blisters! But they were received in a noble cause and provided a lasting memory of his visit to the site. A lady who was in attendance to prevent the burning of enthusiastic visitor’s feet came over to make sure James was not in need of a doctor and told us that on occasion, proto-Olympians would have to visit the local hospital where their burns would be treated with a modern salve.
The Olympic festival continued to be held at the site until the last Olympiad in 393 AD, after which a decree from the spoil-sport Christian emperor, Theodosius I implemented a ban and that the end of the Olympics that until the resurrection of the modern games in Athens during 1896.
And so we returned to the villa by the sea at Filiatra where we spent the evening reliving our trip to Olympia, eating, drinking and looking forward to another day of site-seeing in one of the most beautiful parts of Greece…