Archeological Site of Olympia (1989)

Back to index

The site of Olympia, in a valley in the Peloponnesus, has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the 10th century B.C., Olympia became a centre for the worship of Zeus. The Altis – the sanctuary to the gods – has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces from the ancient Greek world. In addition to temples, there are the remains of all the sports structures erected for the Olympic Games, which were held in Olympia every four years beginning in 776 B.C.

United Nations (Vienna) 2004. Greece. Olympia.

One of the most important sanctuaries of antiquity, dedicated to the father of the gods Olympian Zeus. 

The excavations at Olympia were begun in May 1829, two years after the battle of Navarino, by French archaeologists. 

The finds (metopes from the opisthodomus and parts of the metopes from the pronaos of the Temple of Zeus) were transferred to the Louvre where they are still being exhibited. When the Greek government was informed of the looting of artifacts, the excavation was stopped. 

  • United Nations (Vienna) 2004. World Heritage Series. Olympia. 


Olympia is the birth-place of the Olympic Games and also where they were held. 

The area, of great natural beauty, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the 3rd millenium B.C. and in the late Mycenaean period it became a religious centre. 

Greece 1980. Olympic Stadium at Olympia, with an ancient coin from the town of Elis.

Olympia was also part of The Seven Wonders of the World through the enormous statue of the God Zeus, created by Phidias who lived about 500-430 B.C., and who was one of the most acknowledged artists of the time of Antiquity. 

The colossal statue, made from gold and ivory, has disappeared, and is now only known from contemporary coins and Roman marble-copies. 

The two stamps to the left show Zeus on his throne, and are from Mongolia and Hungary, respectively. 

Excavations started again 45 years later by German archaeologists. The research is being continued to this day by the German Institute of Archaeology in Athens, and the Ephorate of Antiquities in Olympia.

The sanctuary of Olympia spreads around the green wooded feet of the Kronion hill, where the rivers Alpheios and Cladeos meet. The valley amongst the two rivers was in ancient times full of wild olive trees, poplars, oaks, pines and plane trees and it was these trees that gave the centre of the sanctuary the name Altis, meaning alsos (grove). The Altis is the name given to the area in Olympia that comprises the main religious buildings, temples and votive offerings of the sanctuary. Out of the enclosure were the auxiliary buildings, priests' houses, baths, the areas for the preparation of the athletes, guest houses along with other buildings.

The beginning of worship, as well as the mythical confrontations that took place in Olympia, are lost in the depth of the centuries. At the end of the Mycenaean era there was already an installation in the area, and in the Geometric and early Archaic periods, the first simple buildings of the sanctuary were founded. 

The games began in 776 B.C. to honour Zeus. Pelops, the king of the Peloponnese was, according to mythology, their founder. The games, that, from beginning to end were dominated by religious character and austere ritual, were taking place in the area in front of the temples to start with, but later as the athletes taking part in the games, as well as the spectators increased, in well organised installations. At the same time the events were enriched in number and variety.

The innumerable offerings of the 7th-6th centuries B.C. were placed outside on trees, altars or in alcoves of the sanctuary. The most important of the offerings were bronze tripods and cauldrons of excellent quality, war loot (hanging on poles) and other art objects and instruments for the games. In the passing of centuries the architectural plan of the sanctuary takes shape, until the end of the 4th century B.C. when it is finally completed.

Olympia was always functioning as a place of political projection and the games often fell, especially during late antiquity, victim to political exploitation from important personalities like Philip II, Alexander the Great and his successors. Romans, proving their authentic Greek origin, also took part in the games, after the total submission of Greece to Rome, but by then the glamour and idealistic spirit of the games was considerably weakened. 

Other World Heritage Sites in Greece (on this website). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Greece-section, for further information about the individual properties.

Back to index

Revised 21 jul 2006  
Copyright © 1999 Heindorffhus 
All Rights Reserved