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Olympia Birthplace of the Olympic Games Page 5

Remains of the Site of Olympia

olympiaKnown as the 'altis' (a corruption of the Greek word for 'sacred grove'), the site is surrounded by a wall, constructed to delineate the sacred precinct rather than for defensive purposes. There were three entrances, the main one probably the one from the south near eastern side of the Leonidaion, a Hellenistic guest house. Beyond the four columned Propylon pilgrims walked east along the sacred way, lined with offerings and statues of victors of the Olympic Games.

zeusThe Doric Temple of Zeus dated to 472BC dominated the Altis, with its spectacular statue of the seated Olympian Zeus, sculpted by Phidias. This statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, decorated with ivory and gold, a technique known as hrysoelephantine ('hryso' being the Greek word for gold). The statue was 13.5meters/44feet high, and the throne on which he sat of ebony and ivory overlaid with gold and precious stones. The pedestal, decorated with gold relief's of divinities, was of blue black Eleusinian stone, fragments of which have been found. In the left hand of the figure is a scepter, surmounted by an eagle, a Victory, also of hrysoelephantine, is in his right hand, and his head was crowned with an olive wreath. The pillars which supported the enormous weight were hidden by screens with paintings by Panainos, and by the footstool which had golden lions and a relief of Theseus fighting the amazons. This gigantic figure almost reached the ceiling of the temple and wooden galleries were built over the side aisles to enable people to see it more easily. Of the ancient writers, Pausanius alone described it in detail, and stated that the physical measurements alone didn't do justice to the effect the statue had on the viewer.

The care of the statue was in the hands of Pheidias' descendants, who were called 'Burnishers', but by the 2nd century BC the ivory had cracked and had to be repaired, and in the time of Julius Caesar it was struck by lightning. The Emperor Caligula wanted to take it to Rome and to replace the head of Zeus with his own, but every time his agents came near the statue it burst into a loud peal of laughter. Supposedly after the reign of Theodosius II the statue was taken to Constantinople, where it was burned up in a fire in 475AD.

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