Olympia - Birthplace of the Olympics

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April 23rd 2011
Published: April 23rd 2011
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Hermes of PraxitelesHermes of PraxitelesHermes of Praxiteles

This statue was found in the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia.
The southern portion of the Greek mainland is called The Peloponnese and contains many great historical sights. I picked two to visit: Olympia, home of the Ancient Olympics and Mycenae, capital of the Mycenaean culture.


Olympia is the undisputed birthplace of the Olympics. Starting in 776 BCE, the Olympics were held there every four years for over 1100 years. The location was a combination of sports stadium, training ground and temple to both Zeus and Hera. If there was a war going on then a truce was declared for the Olympics and sometimes the leaders of the opposing sides would use the time of the Olympic Truce to settle their disputes. It is on this site that the Olympic flame is lit every two years for the modern Olympic Games.

I saw two museums plus the actual site in Olympia. I started at the Archeological Museum of Olympia where all of the interesting artifacts are displayed. They did a very nice job of recreating the pediments from the main temple and putting all of the history into perspective.

Then I visited the site itself. Unfortunately when the Olympics were abolished by Rome in 426 CE they also
Original Olympic StadiumOriginal Olympic StadiumOriginal Olympic Stadium

A rainy day at the track.
destroyed all of the “pagan” temples so there is not much left. Very little has been reconstructed so it is hard to imagine what it looked like but I did get a sense of awe standing in the starting blocks where the runners started the race. And I learned that when people were caught cheating, not only were they punished (sometimes with a beating) but their names were carved on a statue of Zeus so the world would always know they had cheated. It was an ancient “Wall of Shame.”

Finally I went to the Museum of the Ancient Olympics which described how the Ancient Olympics were organized. The athletes arrived a month before the games and demonstrated they were qualified to participate in two aspects: they had to be at least second generation citizens (not slaves or immigrants) and they had to be sufficiently trained to compete. The organizers kept records of the winners and, based on those records, historians can tell you the names of 90% of the winners over the 1100 year history of the games. The winners were set for life having brought glory to their home city. They received a hero’s welcome and all
Lion's Gate at MycenaeLion's Gate at MycenaeLion's Gate at Mycenae

Those are two headless lions above the gate.
sorts of perks like free meals and front row seats at the theater.


My next place to visit was Mycenae (pronounced mih-kee-nes) but as the facilities are limited in modern Mycenae I stayed in the nearby town of Nafplio. Nafplio is a town of about 15,000 and sits on the edge of the Argolic Gulf of the Mediterranean. The historic part of town is about eight blocks wide and twelve blocks long but on the side farthest from the Gulf it is built on a steep hillside so some of those streets are stairs and most are footpaths not wide enough for cars. It was the first capitol of Greece after Independence in 1833. It has three fortresses with the oldest dating to the Bronze Age and the biggest from the 18th century. While in Nafplio I visited three important sites: Mycenae, Epidavros and the fort in Nafplio called Palmira.


Legend says that Mycenae was built by the hero Perseus using Cyclops (one-eyed giants). The walls are built using boulders and this is now called Cyclopsian construction. What is known is that this city was at its zenith 3600 years ago; it consists of a hill full of ruins and several burial chambers. The first site I saw was a tomb called the Treasury of Atreus which is a beehive shaped room 15 meters tall and 20 meters in diameter. It was robbed eons ago primarily because it was so obvious, just like the pyramids. The building was in very good condition and, I understand, has always been that way, never needing repairs.

Then I walked on to the main site. The ruins are well explained and the surrounding scenery is beautiful so it was a pleasant walk. The Cyclopsian walls are really amazing and so is much of the other architecture like the Lion’s Gate and the ancient cistern. I don’t quite understand why but several un-robbed tombs were found within the city walls. There were well hidden which is why they were not robbed but I don’t understand why the Mycenaeans built tombs inside the city walls. In my blog on Athens I mentioned seeing the Mask of Agamemnon as well as other treasures in the National Archeological Museum. These tombs were where those treasures were found.


The Epidavros Archeological site consists of the ancient Theatre, the museum, and the Temple of Asclepius. It is most famous for its ancient Theatre which is a Greek theatre with about 50 rows of seating and excellent acoustics. This was one of the theaters where Olympic champions got free front row seats. I was talking with a woman who is a local and she said that in the summer they perform ancient Greek tragedies and comedies in this theater.

The museum is just a collection of pieces of statues with very little explanation. In addition, all of the best pieces are in the National Archeological Museum in Athens and so they only had plaster models of those.

Lastly is the site which is the remains of a healing temple dedicated to Asclepius, the son of Apollo and the god of medicine. There is not much left of the temple though they are doing bits of reconstruction here and there which helps to conceptualize what it must have looked like. People who were ill would journey to the temple for healing. They did some medicine but the primary cure was to bathe in the holy waters then sleep in the temple. Asclepius would then come to ill person in a dream and they would wake up cured or much better. They also believed that being licked by a snake was a way of healing and many of the healings recorded say that both a snake came to lick the patient and that Asclepius healed them in a dream.

Palamidi Fortress

Palamidi Fortress was built by the Venetians in the early 1700’s on a large hill above Nafplio. It is considered a masterpiece of military architecture and is really several separate bastions surrounded by one wall. It is on the top of the tallest hill in town and the map I saw said it was 540 feet up. It felt higher. I counted the steps and from the street to the gate it was 900 steps exactly.

As I neared the top I passed a woman headed down. I am still uncertain where she came from because the gate was securely locked having not yet been opened for the day. I waited about ten minutes and the lady arrived to open the gate. When I tried to pay my €4 entry fee we both saw €4 laying on the counter. I still think it was from the lady I passed but the
Palamidi FortressPalamidi FortressPalamidi Fortress

At least 900 steps to the top.
attendant assumed it was mine. I tried to explain but with the language barrier it was not possible so I accepted fate and got in for free. What I don’t understand is how the lady got through the locked gate.

There is very little signage and no interpretation so I just wandered. I saw the entrance to the dungeon (nasty place) and many spectacular views.

Thus ended my time in the Peloponnese. There are many other interesting sites to see but I did not have the time. Easter is approaching and it is the biggest holiday of the year in Greece (like Christmas in the US) so I will be settling for five days on the island of Hydra.

John is still doing well on the Camino and will be finishing early enough to join me for my last week in Greece.

Greek Letters

The Greek alphabet is different from the English one. There are 24 letters. Some look and sound like English letters (A sounds like apple), others look like English but sound different (B sounds like V as in vine), some look different but sound like an English letter (Λ is called Lambda and
A confusing signA confusing signA confusing sign

This is pronounced Taverna and means restaurant.
sounds like L as in lamb) and a few both look different and sound different (Θ is called theta and makes the TH sound as in Beth). My favorite confusing word is TABAPNA. The B is pronounced as V and the P is pronounced as R making this word sound like taverna. A TABEPNA is a restaurant.

To make things more confusing, they have lower case letters that look different. For instance, a lowercase N is v. But if you think about it, none of this is any more confusing than English is to a learner. If you want to learn more, go to this website for a 20 minute tutorial.

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23rd April 2011

Beth, This has been fun, watching your progress. I was especially interested in this blog entry, for some reason. From the looks of the ruins, the economy in ancient Greece was not much better than it is today. : ) John

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