I have been thinking a lot about how best to tackle this post about our visit of Ancient Olympia a couple of months ago. It is a site that is not easy to access intellectually, and I don’t think that much is done to make it easier for the ordinary visitor to understand the different areas and parts of this significant historic site. But then, it may be just too complex to explain in a few simple words.
Take for example Wikipedia. I challenge you to read through this article on Olympia and make sense of what is written there. It’s a highly descriptive article, listing tons of buildings by their Greek names. I am pretty confident you wouldn’t know their functions unless you clicked through to the respective building’s article. It’s like a quick introduction that just scratches the surface, and the minute you realise you actually have to dig way deeper to understand the meaning of all of this your brain suddenly shuts down and you start skimming the text, then aborting the whole process. At least that’s how my brain functions.
Or look at the guide book I bought in the nearby museum shop. Rarely do I find books more boring and less compelling than this guide book. Pages and pages full of text that already assumes a more than profound understanding of the Greek antiquity, the symbols and mythology. On top of this, dozens of photographs of columns and statues, sketches of building locations and photographs of the actual site, none of which evoke any interest in me about this topic as they are so poorly done.
Going through all of the material I tried to read in preparation for this post I no longer wonder why generations of students felt they had to suffer through history classes. History presented this way is boring, mind numbing and pointless.
What a shame, considering how significant ancient Olympia is to this day, and how thrilled I should be that I got the opportunity to visit the site while cruising the Mediterranean. This place should be as special as Rome, Istanbul or Pompeii.
Instead, it’s a wooded area with a collection of toppled over column fragments, indications of temple foundations, and ruins of ancient brick buildings. I guess I could have joined one of the tour guides that roam this space, but I am not an organised tour kind of person. Besides, the people working at Olympia make generous use of their whistles whenever one of the visitors shows signs of wanting to climb onto the ancient ruins (I really don’t understand this fascination of tourists for climbing onto structures that have withstood the test of time for thousand of yours, only to destroy it bit by bit with their sneakers). Overall, a not very inviting atmosphere.
So instead of joining an organised tour I was hoping that the site would offer some explanation in itself or at least would trigger a sense of awe and admiration in me. And I was quite wrong about that.
Having said that, there are certainly some highlights that shouldn’t go unmentioned. The more complete a structure, the more accessible it may get to our cognitive minds. When you walk the streets and can make out buildings structures here and there, that’s quite delightful. The setting among the tall shady trees is lovely, and it’s a peaceful, wide open space that resembles a walk in a park full of random ancient monuments.
A visit to the Olympic stadium is a must, of course. The shape is still recognisable but there are no stone stands as you would find in Roman amphitheatres. The shape is not round but long, perfect for races. There is also the remains of the underground tunnel that would lead the athletes into the stadium.
So how can I inspire you to add ancient Olympia to your bucket list?
First of all, adjust your expectations. This is not a functioning city, and there are no interactive displays or artist impressions or further information that would help gain a deeper understanding of the city. However, we did come across a current digging site right by the entrance which was quite interesting to look at.
Secondly, think about the significance of the site for the human race: humans have been living here for thousands of years (there were even remains found here of a Homo heidelbergensis), and the cultural and religious importance of this place is way older than the classic Greeks. To this day, the Olympic torch is being lit here in a time-honoured ceremony, to be carried around the world in a relay that will end in the modern Olympic destination.
Lastly, combine your visit of the site with a visit to the nearby Olympic Museum where you can see statues, ornamental parts of buildings, and lots more which will complete the picture somewhat a bit. Even better: stroll through the shamefully neglected Botanic Garden next door which is part of the ensemble but which seems to be the main sufferer in a shortage of funding at the moment. None of the other visitors seemed to pay attention to this little garden next to the museum, but it really is quite pretty to look at.
I leave it up to you to make up your mind whether you should visit Ancient Olympia. To me, there are better preserved and accessible places out there that will get you much closer to the classic Greek or Roman antiquity such as the Colosseum, Ephesos or the Acropolis. However, if you just take it for what it is I think you will have an enjoyable experience. In the meantime, have a look at the photos below!
Looking for more things to see in Greece? Have a look here!