Friday, October 18, 2013

October 18th – The Olympian Ideal

From the quiet Peloponnesian port of Katakolon, we took the trip to the evocative ancient site of Olympia, the home of the original Olympic Games. Back in ancient times, this was one of the most important cultural sites in Greece, but sadly time has not been kind to the birthplace of sport. After 1,000 years of the games, the newly Christianised Romans banned them (for being too pagan) in the 4th century AD, then they decided to destroy all the temples in the 5th century. This was followed up by a double whammy of earthquakes and devastating floods that toppled whatever else was left standing and then covered it all over in deep mud.

So, what has been uncovered here is in a fairly poor state of repair, although the sheer size of the huge columns and the array of religious and sporting facilities hint at the magnificence of the city in antiquity. The Temple of Zeus was once as big and impressive as the Parthenon, but now it's a pile of tumbled down columns – admittedly, the diameter of the columns was as tall as me, which gave us a sense of scale. For our second port in a row, we were visiting a site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 2 days ago, all that was left of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was a single standing column, and here at Olympia, all that was left of the once wonder-ful Statue of Zeus that stood here, was precisely nothing. Unfortunately, the Romans had decided to shift the 12 metre high statue to Constantinople, where it was subsequently destroyed in a fire.

For me, it's the significance of the place that's its chief attraction. It's amazing to think about the legacy of those ancient games held in the old stadium, and then fast forward to the sporting extravaganza of the 2012 Games held in London – would the Greek athletes have seen the link between their contests and the modern over-commercialised games? Actually, they might have. Cheating and bribery were as common then as they are now – we saw the row of plinths were once would have stood the statues of the cheats who were discovered, their shame immortalised in stone.

We perused the remains of the Gymnasium, the wrestling grounds, the treasuries, and various temples and shrines, before coming to the most evocative part of the ruins - the huge stadium with its grassy banks surrounding a 200-metre long running track. Here, you could imagine sitting amongst a 45,000 strong crowd, cheering on the sprinters in front of you. The setting certainly inspired a group of German school children, who carried out enthusiastic races for our entertainment – the boy who won his race by gleefully setting off after the "ready, steady", rather than the "go", showed that cheating is still clearly a part of the sporting ethos.

The other great attraction of the site is its beautiful setting – the site is wonderfully green and fertile, covered in wild flowers and shaded by tall trees. It may not have been as visually impressive as marble-clad Ephesus, but this peaceful site was certainly very atmospheric and fun to explore.

So, cruising has allowed me to visit the sites of six of the Seven Ancient Wonders (Olympia,
Ephesus, Rhodes, Bodrum/Helicarnassus, Giza and Alexandria ) – sadly a cruise to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is still impossible from both a geographical and a security standpoint!