In western Peloponnese, in the beautiful valley of the Alpheios river, lies the most celebrated sanctuary of ancient Greece. Dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods, it sprawls over the southwest foot of Mount Kronios, at the confluence of the Alpheios and the Kladeos rivers, in a lush, green landscape. Although secluded near the west coast of the Peloponnese, Olympia became the most important religious and athletic centre in Greece. Its fame rests upon the Olympic Games, the greatest national festival and a highly prestigious one world-wide, which was held every four years to honour Zeus. The origin of the cult and of the festival went back many centuries. Local myths concerning the famous Pelops, the first ruler of the region, and the river Alpheios, betray the close ties between the sanctuary and both the East and West.
The earliest finds in Olympia are located on the southern foot of Mount Kronios, where the first sanctuaries and prehistoric cults were established. A large number of pottery sherds of the Final Neolithic period (fourth millennium BC) were found on the north bank of the stadium. Traces of occupation of the three periods of the Bronze Age were identified in the greater area of the Altis and new museum. A great tumulus of the Early Helladic II period (2800-2300 BC) was discovered in the lower strata of the Pelopion, while several apsidal structures belong to the Early Helladic III period (2150-2000 BC). It is traditionally believed that in approximately 1200 BC the region of Olympia was settled by Aetolians under the leadership of Oxylos, who founded the state of Elis. The first planned sanctuary dedicated to local and Pan-Hellenic deities was probably established towards the end of the Mycenaean period. The Altis, the sacred enclosure with its shady oaks, planes, pines, poplars and olive-trees, was first formed during the tenth and ninth centuries BC, when the cult of Zeus was probably established. Olympia was subsequently devoted exclusively to worship and for many centuries had no other structures except for the Altis, a walled precinct containing sacrificial altars and the tumulus of the Pelopion. The numerous votive offerings, mostly figurines, bronze cauldrons and tripods were placed outdoors, on trees and altars. The first figurines representing Zeus, the master of the sanctuary, date to the Geometric period.
In 776 BC, Iphitos, king of Elis, Kleosthenes of Pisa and Lykourgos of Sparta reorganized the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus and instituted the sacred ekecheiria, or truce. Soon the quadrennial festival acquired a national character. The great development of the sanctuary began in the Archaic period as shown by the thousands of votive offerings - weapons, figurines, cauldrons etc - dating from this period. This is when the first monumental buildings were constructed - the temple of Hera, the Prytaneion, the Bouleuterion, the treasuries and the first stadium. The sanctuary continued to flourish into the Classical period, when the enormous temple of Zeus (470-456 BC) and several other buildings (baths, stoas, treasuries, ancillary buildings) were erected, and the stadium moved to the east of its Archaic predecessors, outside the Altis. The countless statues and precious offerings of this period were unfortunately lost, as the sanctuary was pillaged several times in antiquity and especially under Roman rule. In the Hellenistic period the construction of lay buildings, such as the gymnasium and palaestra, continued, while in Roman times several existing buildings were refurbished and new ones built, including hot baths, luxurious mansions and an aqueduct. Many of the sanctuary's treasures were removed and used for the decoration of Roman villas.
The sanctuary continued to function during the first years of Christian rule under Constantine the Great. The last Olympic Games were held in 393 AD, before an edict of Theodosius I prohibited all pagan festivals. In 426 BC Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the sanctuary. In the mid-fifth century AD a small settlement developed over the ancient ruins and the Workshop of Pheidias was transformed into a Christian church. In 522 and 551 the ruins were devastated anew by earthquakes, the Temple of Zeus being partially buried. In subsequent centuries the Alpheios and the Kladeos overflowed and together with landslips from Mount Kronios buried the site deep in mud and sand. Olympia remained forgotten under a layer of debris 5-7 metres deep. The area was dubbed Antilalos and it is not until 1766 that the ancient sanctuary was re-discovered.
In 1829 the French Scientific Expedition of the Peloponnese partially excavated the Temple of Zeus, taking several fragments of the pediments to the Mus?e du Louvre. Systematic excavation began by the German Archaeological Institute in 1875 and continues to the present. During this last decade U. Sinn, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of W?rzburg and member of the German Archaeological Institute, and his team researched the southwest building, while Dr. H. Kyrieleis, former director of the German Archaeological Institute, and his team excavated the Prehistoric buildings of the sanctuary. Several monuments of the site are currently under conservation and restoration.
The archaeological site of Olympia includes the sanctuary of Zeus and the many buildings erected around it, such as athletic premises used for the preparation and celebration of the Olympic Games, administrative buildings and other lay buildings and monuments. The Altis, the sacred enclosure and core of the sanctuary, with its temples, cult buildings and treasuries, occupies the centre of the site. It is surrounded by a peribolos, or enclosure wall, which in the late fourth century BC had three gates on its west side and two on the south, and is bordered on the east by the Echo Stoa, which separates the sacred precinct from the stadium. The enclosure wall was extended in Roman times and two monumental entrances were created on its west side.
The Classical Temple of Zeus and the earlier Temple of Hera dominate the Altis. East of the Heraion is the Metro?n, a temple dedicated to Cybele, the mother of the gods, and behind this, on the foot of Mount Kronios, a row of treasuries dedicated by Greek cities and colonies. To their west lies the Nymphaion, a splendid fountain dedicated by Herodes Atticus. South of the Heraion and over the remains of the prehistoric settlement of Olympia is the Pelopion, a funerary monument commemorating the hero Pelops. Also within the Altis are the Prytaneion, the see of the sanctuary officials, and the Philippeion, an elegant circular building dedicated by Philip II, king of Macedon. Southeast of the Heraion was the great altar of Zeus, a most important monument entirely made of ashes and therefore now completely lost. The remaining space inside the Altis was filled with numerous altars and statues of gods, heroes and Olympic winners dedicated by Greek cities or wealthy individuals, such as the Nike of Paionios.
Outside the sacred precinct of the Altis, to its south, are the Bouleutherion and the South Stoa, the southernmost building of the greater sanctuary and its main entrance from the south. West of the Altis and separated from it by the Sacred Road is a series of buildings for the sanctuary personnel, the athletes and the distinguished visitors: the gymnasium and palaestra, exercise grounds, the Workshop of Pheidias which in Late Antiquity was transformed into a Christian church, the Greek baths with their swimming pool, the Roman hot baths, the Theokoleion or priests' residence, the Leonidaion or officials' quarters, and the Roman hostels.
East of the Altis lies the stadium where the Olympic Games were held. South of the stadium was the hippodrome, of which no trace remains as it was swept away by the Alpheios. South of the hippodrome is a group of mansions and baths, including the famous House of Nero, built by the emperor for his stay at Olympia during his participation in the games.
(Odysseus, Greek Ministry of Culture)