Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)
On April 13 we were docked at Katakolon, a very small town in western Greece.
The main attraction in this area is Olympia (not Mt Olympus, which is not near here), the site of the ancient Olympic Games. So that is where we elected to spend the day. This entailed a bus trip through the beautiful countryside with hillsides of olive trees. Near the towns were large piles of bags of trash & garbage. Our guide was clearly embarrassed by this, but we didn’t fully understand her explanation which was mostly about the closing of disposal facilities in the area & controversy about how to replace them. Why would you close the facilities before ensuring an alternative, and will this piling up go on indefinitely? Maybe we missed something, but its pretty clear that the locals are not happy about what this does to their image, particularly with their big moment in the spotlight coming next week when the Olympic flame is lit at the site of the ancient Olympics.
As mentioned earlier, we visited the week before Olympia’s big moment, the lighting of the Olympic torch. When we arrived there was a local celebration in progress. The big turnout seemed mostly to be school kids.
The archaeological site, a sacred religious compound to the ancient Greeks established long before the athletic games, was a short walk down the road. This was not a town, but a religious enclave. The first recorded Panhellenic athletic games here were held around 776 BC and continued for more than a millennium until the Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them in 393 AD as part of a general campaign against pagan rituals. Earthquakes began to destroy the buildings in the 3d century and the site was abandoned in the 7th century after repeated floods & earthquakes. Floods deeply buried the site, which was rediscovered only in the mid-18th century. Excavation was begun in 1875.
Our first stop after entering the site was at the Gymnasion and the Palaestra. Participants were required to spend the month before the games training on-site & these buildings housed the training facilities for racing, javelin, and discus in the Gymnasion & wrestling, boxing and long jump in the Palaestra. Women were not allowed here. The men competed in the games naked, wearing only olive oil mixed with sand to protect from the sun. There were only two rules for wrestling: no poking in the eye with a finger & no biting. As our guide observed, many men will instantly think of another very vulnerable body part that was not protected by these rules! While a large portion of the pillars lining the Gymnasion are visible, some of it is still buried under the road that brings visitors to the site, which gave an idea of how deeply the entire site was once buried. Throughout the area Judas Trees were covered with pink flowers on this nice Spring day. (Note that we have labeled the pictures to the best of our recollections, but our recollections are not always reliable a month after the fact.)
Across from the Gymnasion is the Philippeion, the only round building here & the only one dedicated to a human. It was begun by Philip of Macedonia to commemorate his conquest of Greece in 338 BC, and may have been completed by his son, Alexander the Great. The building, now partially restored, originally held gold & ivory statues of Philip & his family. It marked a turning point for the enclave’s evolution from a religious to a more secular nature.
Next to the Philippeion, but much larger, is the rectangular Temple of Hera, originally built around 650 BC. It may originally have been wood, but the columns were replace by stone over the centuries as the wooden ones rotted. This is the oldest & most complete building on the site. Like the other buildings here, this one was made of local limestone rather than marble, with a coating of stucco made with marble dust to make it shine like marble. The stucco is long gone, so that what you see now is the limestone itself.
Since 1936 the Olympic flame has been lit at the Altar of Hera, just outside the end of the Temple of Hera closest to the athletic grounds. The torch is ignited by sunlight in a mirrored bowl & then the flame is transferred to a ceramic bowl. This year the official lighting of the flame was scheduled just 8 days after our visit, and we were treated to a view of a rehearsal. The women who play the temple priestesses are all professional actresses who donate their services, and they rehearse on site for about a week before the ceremony. The high priestess is a well known Greek movie & TV actress named Katerina Lechou. The two pillars behind them are remains of the Exedra of Herodes Attticus, built in 160 AD, which was a circular water fountain..
We walked over toward the athletic grounds, entered through an arch covered passageway that was once fully covered. On the hill to our left – the Hill of Kronos where Zeus was supposedly born & his father Kronos tried unsuccessfully to eat him — were the “treasuries” of the various cities, which held their equipment for sacrifices & athletics. Along the wall leading to the passageway was a row of pedestals that once held bronze statues of Zeus (called “Zanes,” plural of Zeus). They were built using fines paid by athletes found to have cheated in the games and each had an inscription on the base naming the violator, his father & city, and his offense. This walk of shame was a pretty dramatic warning to the competitors who passed them on the way to the Krypti, a 100 foot long vaulted tunnel that was the entrance to the stadium. Today there is a only single arch representing the long roof that covered the entire walkway.
The stadium isn’t much more than a large rectangle of dirt with gentle grassy hills on each side & a few rows of stone seating on one side. Rehearsals were in progress there as well, so we didn’t have an opportunity to explore it or take any interesting pictures. We walked back into the archaeological site & headed toward the Temple of Zeus. We passed some workmen who were using a pulley system to reassemble a huge pillar inside a scaffolding. We also saw a rectangular stone that had once been a pedestal for a bronze statue (perhaps of one of the Olympic champions). The two holes cut into the top were for the statue’s brpmze feet; this was only done for bronze statues.
The Temple of Zeus was completed in the middle of the 5th century BC. This was the largest building at Olympia, its shape & size being comparable to the Parthenon. The temple was some 68 feet high & 235 feet long. In front was a large statue of Nike, goddess of victory (now in the museum), standing on a high pedestal. This was where the Olympic victors were crowned with Olive wreaths. Inside was the colossal gold & ivory statue of a seated Zeus, some 43 feet tall, which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The sculptor Pheidias spent 12 years at the site creating this statue. The statue sat in the temple for about 1,000 years before being destroyed sometime n the 5th century AD, perhaps by fire after being carried off to Constantinople & perhaps with the destruction of this temple itself. In 426 the Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered this pagan temple burned, and two earthquakes during the 6th century competed the job.
Finally, situated at the southwest corner of the area is the Leonidaion, which contained living quarters. Near it is the Workshop of Pheidias, where the sculptor spent more than a decade crafting the great statue of Zeus. It was identified by sculptural tools & a cup inscribed “I belong to Pheidias” found in the building. The two pictures of a brick building below are probably the Workshop rather than the Leonidaion (we didn’t get close enough to be sure).
We left the archaeological sight and headed for the museums. Near the entrance we passed the Hill of Kronos that overlooks the sight & some bright red flowers (geraniums?). On the road to the museum we saw a roadside shrine, which we were told are common in Greece to commemorate those killed in accidents, and an olive grove.
We visited the Ancient Olympic Games Museum, set on a hill above the archaeological site. Originally built in the 1880’s, this museum was abandoned after being damaged by an earthquake in 1953, but was repaired & reopened in 2004. It has a thematic organization focusing on the Olympic games. Among the items here were an ancient discus, the wheel of a chariot, small jars in which athletes carried their olive oil & iron scrapers they used to remove the oil & sand after competition, and pottery jars with athletic themes.
We drove to the Archaeological Museum on the other side of the site, opened in 1982, which houses a rich collection of ancient artifacts found at Olympia. In the central hall were the reassembled statuary that had been on the pediments above each end of the Temple of Zeus. Pediments were triangular in shape and these groups of statues were made to fit those dimensions. The west pediment, pictured below, depicts a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (half man, half horse). This is considered some of the best surviving examples of so-called severe style of early Greek sculpture. The central figure is Apollo, attempting to restore order.
The Temple of Zeus also displayed reliefs of the twelve labors of Hercules. Called Metopes, these were situated just below the pediments, six on each end.
The Nike of Palonios is the statue that originally stood on the tall base sitting in front of the Temple of Zeus, shown above with the temple. It is quite large & its dress was originally red. An image of this sculpture was prominent on the medals awarded at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the Ancient Olympic Games Museum is a model of what it originally looked like, standing on its tall base.
The statue of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus was probably sculpted by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC. It was rediscovered in several pieces in the Temple of Hera in 1877. This is considered one of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture.
Two more statues we noted are from the Roman period: one of Emperor Hadrian & one of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife. We also saw some lion heads that were originally water spouts on the tops of buildings.
A couple of interesting ancient helmets were in a glass case together. One was a Persian helmet from the 5th century BC, with an inscription in Greek identifying it as “booty” the Athenians “took from the Medes.” The other was a helmet with the inscription “Miltiades offered to Zeus,” dedicated by the victorious general after his victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC.
Leaving the museum we headed for lunch. It was a pretty good walk back to the bus, passing an area with shops & a café whose patio was covered with blooming Wisteria. We had a HUGE and delicious Greek lunch at a lovely restaurant with a swimming pool & brightly colored flowers in its garden.
We made one more stop, in the modern village of Olympia, where we spent some time exploring the many shops (this is, after all, primarily there for tourists). Then we headed back to the ship for a fairly early departure. The next day, just north of Sicily, we passed the island of Stromboli, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. We passed this island at night in 2013 and, although you couldn’t see the island very well in the dark, it was erupting regularly every 10 or 15 seconds, sending fire into the sky that was clearly visible rather far away. This time it was daylight and we passed a lot closer, but the volcano was only smoking, no fireworks. Amazingly, this island is inhabited; there’s no telling where people will choose to live! We spent one more night at sea on this welcome sea day.
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