The next stop was in Katakolon, Greece. We arrived at Olympia after a short bus ride, during which we were told some history and interesting (though inaccurate*) mythology.
Olympia is known primarily as the birthplace of the Olympics. They were traditionally said to have begun in 776 BCE, and this is when they officially started count, but there is evidence to suggest earlier origins... in much the same way we count year zero based on inaccurate estimates of the birthyear of Jesus. The games were abolished in 394 CE by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I for being non-Christian. The athletes performed in the nude and in honor of Zeus, Kronos, Nike, and various other gods and goddesses... not very Christian, I suppose.
The Olympics were so important, they were often used as the method of keeping track of the year. For example, someone born in the 2nd year of the 40th Olympiad would be born in 614 BCE, expressed by the equation 776 - [(40 x 4)+2].
Often, modern people think of the world in terms of nations, but ancient people living in what we think of Greece would not think of themselves as part of a Greek country or empire. Rather, they would identify with their local city-state (polis). Pretty much the only thing all the Greek speakers had in common besides language was their participation in the four Panhellenic games (the others being the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games). During these games, even city-states at war would compete peacefully under a truce known as ekecheiria.
Though the games were abolished at the end of the 4th century CE, some of the temples and other buildings at the site remained standing until earthquakes demolished everything in the mid 6th century. The site was then buried over time by silt from the nearby river’s regular overflow. Farmers in the area began unearthing relics in the 18th century, andtThe site was excavated and plundered by the English as early as 1766.
Nothing remained standing at the site; every column currently standing was re-erected by archaeologists. Littered about the site are numerous portions of temples:
Below is the partially reconstructed Philippeion, originally built by Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great:
This is a picture of the racing track. The foot races were not done in a circle; rather, runners would run straight down. One length was called a stadion. Later races were added where the runners had to return. There was even a hoplite race, in which the runners sprinted in battle armor weighing over fifty pounds, with shield. Chariot races were also run on the track, but they were set up to race in a circuit. The exact dimensions of the track are uncertain, and may have even changed over time, so the cleared track pictured is an estimate:
Here's where I analyze the ancient Olympics and provide suggestions on how to improve the modern Olympics. For one thing, we need pankration, which is essentially MMA. The only rules are no biting, no eye gouging. Second, the ancient Olympics had non-athletic events of an artistic nature (visual arts, writing, music, etc.). I think it would bring in some non-jocks. If you’re going to do something only once every four years, you have to attract everyone. The modern Olympics even had art events in architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture from 1912 to 1948.
The most interesting part of the trip for me was seeing the spot where the Temple of Zeus once stood. Below is a view of it from the front:
Impressive... with a little imagination. The temple housed what was regarded as one of the wonders of the ancient world: the gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Below is a picture of an informational plaque at the site:
One thing to point out is that Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the temple before the earthquakes completely demolished the ruins. The statue itself was carried off to Constantinople, where it was probably “recycled” by the iconoclastic Christians. Below is the lone column that has been reconstructed at the site:
Olympia has numerous statue bases (though the statues have been plundered by colonialist pigs and are currently held hostage by ineffectual liberal do-nothings). Some were statues of winners. Some were statues of gods made in payment of penalties for cheating. A few were just donations made by wealthy citizens to honor themselves or others. One can see indentations on the top of both of these bases where the feet of the statues would have been:
After Olympia, we were driven to a hotel where we were fed meatballs and cheese-filled pastries with blood orange juice and ouzo. I then sat through about ten minutes of Greek dancing of some kind. I have always hated dancing, and I sometimes wonder if the gene for feeling spirituality is linked to the joy of dancing. Any atheists out there who actually enjoy dancing? I’m sure there are, but I don’t really care (so I don’t know why I bothered asking).
Also, they played the song from the opening of the Godfather before the dancing began. This song was sort of the unofficial theme for our trip. We had heard it earlier from our hotel room in Rome being played by a street accordionist. It was also on the playlist in the dining room where we ate dinner. I can’t stand the Godfather; the song is pretty good, though. I don’t know which is worse, the Godfather or dancing. I think it would have to be the dancing done in the Godfather.
For my next post: Turkey… again. This time with pictures!
* The guide made a common mistake, equating the Titan father of Zeus, Kronos (Greek: Κρόνος), with Chronos (Χρόνος), the god of time. Renaissance scholars of Greek mythology were the first to incorrectly link the two, viewing Zeus’ later defeat of Kronos as a symbol of divine triumph over time, and therefore mortality. One can see the clear distinction between the two in the separate Roman mythologies of Saturn (Kronus) and Chronus (Chronos/Time).