Architecture Around the World

Olympia, Greece

Olympia Museum

Click on illustrations to enlarge

Artist's conception of the sanctuary. Source: poster at Olympia

Temple of Hera (Juno in Latin), the sister/wife of Zeus/Jupiter

Temple of Hera remains

Temple of Hera remains

Temple of Hera remains - Doric columns

Temple of Hera remains -Doric columns

Temple of Hera remains - Doric column

Restored Roman brick wall

Passageway leading to the Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium starting line ("blocks") and track

Temple of Zeus/Jupiter remains

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Section of a fluted column with center hole for reinforcing rod

The Palaistra

The Palaistra remains

The Palaistra remains

The Palaistra remains

The Sanctuary

Peloponnese: an enormous peninsula, which falls short of being an island by a mere 4-mile width of the Corinth isthmus. The name "Peloponnese" means "island of Pelops," who in legend was fed to the gods by Tantalus, his father. Resurrected, he went on to sire the Atreid line of kings, whose semi-mythical misadventures and brooding citadels were given substance by the discovery of remains at Mycenae.

In the west lies Olympia. The Sanctuary of Olympia enjoyed over 1,000 years of esteem as a religious and athletic center. Its historic importance dates to to the coming of the Dorians and their worship of Zeus, after whose abode on Mount Olympus the site was named. By the end of the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-38), the sanctuary had begun to have less religious and political influence.

Features: Shady groves of pine, olive, and oak trees, the considerable remains of two temples, and the stadium where the first Olympic races were run in 776 B.C., and one of the finest archeological museums in Greece.

Both a sanctuary and an athletic complex, where the Games took place every four years from 7776 B.C. to A.D. 393. Thereafter, the sanctuary slipped into oblivion, and their buildings were toppled by repeated earthquakes

Subsequent flooding of the Alpheios and the Kladeos, together with the erosion of Kronion, whose sandy soil had become denuded of trees in the meantime, finally covered the whole sanctuary with a deposit of silt 7 m. thick. The Kladeos, furthermore, changed its course, washing away many of the buildings in the west of the sanctuary.

The first efforts to discover the monuments of Olympia were those of the French "Expedition scientifique de Moree," in 1829. Systematic excavation in the sanctuary was begun by the German Archaeological Institute in 1875,

Temples (from 700 BC)

The temple was the dwelling place of the god or goddess to whom it was dedicated and housed his or her statue: some temples were dedicated to more than one divinity.

Proportions - The temples, which were thought to represent the architectural ideal, are essentially a blend of structural simplicity and harmonious proportions The proportions were governed by the module the average radius of the column. which determined the height since the column was the basic element in the elevation of a building. In some buildings the architects departed from rigid verticals and horizontals to correct optical distortion. The horizontal entablatures were slightly bowed making the center imperceptibly higher than the ends: each column was inclined towards its inner neighbor as it rose, the angle of incline increasing from the center of the colonnade towards the outer corner.

Decoration - The sculpted figures, often didactic, were placed on the secondary architectural features: the tympanum (pediment) and the metopes (architrave). The temples were painted: the background was generally red with the prominent features in blue to form a contrast. These brilliant colors made the stone or white marble sculptures stand out. A gilded bronze color was used to pick out certain decorative motifs such as shields or acroteria.

Building Material

Quarries -- The chief building material was stone: limestone tufa (often shell limestone) and marble from the quarries on Pentelikon, Thassos and Naxos. The stone blocks were quarried with a pickax and extracted with the aid of metal or wooden wedges the latter were soaked to make them expand. Often the blocks were then shaped on the spot into architectural elements: columns. capitals, models of statues.

Transport - The blocks were removed from the quarry down a slipway constructed so as to have a regular gradient. Weighing on average 5 tons, they were loaded on to wooden sledges which were lowered on ropes hitched round fixed bollards. The blocks were then transferred to carts or drays drawn by bullocks for transport to the building site.

Building sites - On the site the rough or prepared blocks were unloaded with the aid of levers and rollers and sent to the workshop to be dressed or decorated (fluting, molding) or carved (capitals, pediments and metopes).The blocks were raised into position with a block and tackle and hoist or derrick. The dressed stones which were placed one upon another without mortar were held in place by H or N cramps. Wooden or metal pins were used to secure the piles of drums which made up a column: the holes which held them can still be seen. Stone columns received a coat of stucco.

Bonding - In large scale constructions the blocks of stone were cut and placed in various ways according to the purpose and penod of the building and the means and time available. No bonding material was used. This gives Greek stonework an almost unrivaled aesthetic and functional value. The Cyclopean style of construction, rough but sturdy, is to be found in some Mycenaean structures.

Temple of Hera

The temple of Hera is a Doric temple built c. 650 B.C.

The temple, which is long and narrow and has heavy proportions, is one of the earliest examples of monumental temple construction in Greece. The lower part of the temple is made of the local shelly-limestone, while the upper part of the walls were of unbaked bricks, and the entablature of wood, with terra-cotta tiles on the roof. The columns were originally made of wood, being gradually replaced by stone ones over a period of some centuries. Each column was replaced by another, one in the style of the period in question, so that the columns reflect the complete development of the Doric column, and especially the capital, from the Archaic period to Roman times. Inside the cella is preserved the base on which the stone statues of Zeus and Hera stood. The colossal head of a goddess found during the excavations belongs very probably to this statue of Hera.

Temple of Zeus

A chryselephantine statue of Zeus seated on a throne, sculpted by Pheidias, was set up inside the cella in about 430 B.C. This magnificent work is described in detail by Pausanias, but only inferior reproduction of it survives, mainly on Elean coins. The gigantic figure of the god held a Nike - also made of gold and ivory - in his right hand and his scepter in his left. The throne and base of the statue were decorated with mythical scenes featuring gods, demons and heroes, in gold, ebony and precious stones. Considered one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Construction of the temple of Zeus commenced in ca. 470 B.C., immediately after the reorganization of the state, and was completed in 456 B.C. This Doric peripteral temple was the work of the Elean architect Libon.

The largest in the Peloponnese, it was considered the perfect expression of the Doric temple. The temple originally had 34 stocky Doric columns.

The twelve metopes portrayed the twelve labors of Herakles. These sculptures, now partially restored and displayed in the Olympia Museum, are the most representative examples of Greek art of the "Severe style."

On the east pediment was a gilded Nike (Victory), the work of Paionios, the same artist who sculpted the marble Nike which stood on the high triangular pedestal in front of the east facade of the temple of Zeus.

The Stadium

The Stadium (actually rebuilt twice) can be dated to the early 5th century B.C.

From that time, the Games, too, began to change their nature, and gradually became merely a spectacle for entertainment. The track in this new stadium is 212.54 m. long, and ca. 28.50 m. wide, while the starting and finishing lines are 192.28 m. apart.. The embankments surrounding the stadium on all four sides did not have stone seats. Apart from a very few stone seats reserved for important persons, such as the judges, on the south embankment of the stadium, opposite the Altar of Demeter Chamyne, the 45.000 spectators that the stadium could hold sat on the ground.


In an area long used for training the athletes, the Palaistra (wrestling-school) was built in the 3rd century B.C., for practice in wrestling, boxing and jumping. It was roughly square in shape (66.35 x 66.75 m.), with a peristyle court, surrounded by covered areas sectioned off into special rooms for undressing, anointing the body with oil, powdering it with dust, bathing, as well as rooms with benches for lessons in theory. Some consider this one of the first schools in western civilization.


To the north of the Palaistra and adjoining it was the Gymnasium, a closed rectangular building (120 x 220 m.) with a spacious court in the center, and stoas on all four sides. This was where the athletes trained for events that required a lot of space, such as the javelin, discus and running. It was built in the early 2nd century B.C., though its monumental entrance probably belongs to the end of the 2nd century B.C.

See also:

Photos and their arrangement © 2001 Chuck LaChiusa
| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index... .|....E-Mail ...| .

web site consulting by ingenious, inc.