May 08, 2014

Ancient Olympia

Temple of Zeus
I’m going backwards in travel time, but that clock has lost its meaning.  I did not expect the sanctuary of Olympia to have such a sacred atmosphere.  Here, the central god is Zeus, whereas in Delphi, the god is Apollo.  Numerous groups of sightseers crowded into this sanctuary, particularly Greek high school students studying their ancient culture, yet there was a general silence that came upon us as we approached.  The air was cool with high clouds shading us and then suddenly hot in the sun with all the surrounding hills still carrying the green of winter rains.

Temple of Hera with sacrificial
altar in the foreground
The Philippeon begun by Philip II
and completed by Alexander the Great
The sanctuary of Olympia flourished from the 10th C. BCE to 426 CE, the year in which the emperor Theodosius II closed all the ancient sanctuaries and banned all of the ancient cults.  Olympia had been a major religious, cultural and sporting center, a place that linked Greece with colonies on the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  When the pagan religions were suppressed, the Olympic games, which had continued for twelve centuries and the site fell into disuse.  Being adjacent to a river, flooding caused some decay as did earthquakes.  A new theory is that tsunamis were also responsible for some destruction of the buildings. 

Entrance to the Olympic Field with
statuary platforms on the left
The modern games were not reinstituted until 1894 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and are now completely international.  During ancient times, only pure born Greek men could participate and women were not even permitted to watch.  Women are still fighting the good fight as in the former ban on women in the high ski jump with the reason given until a few years ago that it might cause harm to their reproductive organs.  Women were also excluded from performing in the ancient theatre as they were in many other cultures.  But all of that is another discussion. 

The playing field where I raced with two young girls
from Australia traveling in our group.  The stone on the slope
to the left was the Statue of Demeter and the place on the
right slope was the judges stand.
It’s hard to understand the suppression and destruction of cultures such as happened here in Greece, in fantastic works of art.  Or in the destruction of the great Buddhist statues by the Taliban for instance in our own time.  The suppression of change and suppression of past expression continues everywhere.  What a world!  What a world!  It happens in neighborhoods, in schools in our own cities and at our own dinner tables in subtle ways that we don’t necessarily notice.  How do we appreciate and continue traditions that we honor without erasing what is also around us? Globalization, with all its whole-world view, is forcing us into a tight spot and forcing difficult cultural questions.  How much does the culture of this island Serifos give up because of tourism, its main economic resource?  America as the great experiment of freedom erased plenty of Native cultures and cultures of newly arrived immigrants. Yet how interesting that hoards of people today are flocking to so-called pagan sites and studying them as if hungry to assist and revive the spirit of greatness in art and expression from these ancient times.  We have so much to learn.