Saturday, May 10, 2014

Olympia - fleeting immortality in the sun of Ancient Greece

Near the port of Katakolon, Greece and site of the ancient Olympic games for a millennium, Olympia is a reminder that nothing made by the hand of man lasts forever.

The village of Katakolon is really nothing more than a short avenue of shops and cafes servicing the port. There are the nearby underwater ruins of ancient Pheia and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, but the main attraction for those who are not near-dead is Olympia. Our shore excursion did not begin until 12:15 pm. Even the sleeping habits of my fourteen-year-old son Thomas were accommodated, and our breakfast aboard the Ruby Princess was more of a brunch. Access to the archaeological site was via a 30-minute motor coach ride through olive orchards and scattered vineyards of the western Peloponnese.

Katakolon as seen from the decks of Ruby Princess

Ruins at Olympia date from circa 776 BC (the first definitively recorded games) through to Roman times until wet blanket Emperor Theodosius put a damper on the party after AD 393. Here, Thomas got his first taste of the ancient sites that so interest him since our family visit to Bath, England in 2009. Though our admission was included in Princess Cruise Line's shore excursion package, standard entry costs €6, €3 for a child; rates for both site and museum are €9/5.

The tour seemed timed to coincide with the hottest part of the day. We darted from shady spot to shady spot, where our guide described a few major points of interest out of the blazing sun. She carried a type of book that is ubiquitous anywhere ancient buildings have collapsed. It contained transparency overlays that "fill in" missing aspects of structures with artist's renderings, recreating how the original temples may have appeared.

Ruins is an appropriate description; very little is really left besides foundations. But as a whole the site is in better shape than large parts of Lackawanna, New York or Detroit, and some modern Athenians might feel right at home if there was graffiti. Highlights include the Temple of Zeus--an ivory and gold statue of the god that once resided here was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Now, we can only wonder what it looked like. Then there was the Heraion--now the Temple of Hera (who supplanted Zeus after he departed for his own, larger apartments)--and the Philippeion, sponsored by Alexander the Great to honor a decisive victory of his father over Athens and Thebes. We also stopped by the Gymnasium, which was used as a practice area before athletic events, and the remnants of Roman-era baths and fountains. 

The gymnasium was a training facility for competitors in the games. It was also a place for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits. The name comes from the Ancient Greek term gymnós meaning "naked." Athletes competed in the nude as a tribute to the gods. Any such "facts" I relay are from Wikipedia, the go-to reference for lazy researchers like me. There is no word on whether the socializing and philosophical ruminations were done in the buff as well.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was dedicated to the chief of the gods. Completed between 472 and 456 BC, the Doric-style temple housed the renowned statue of Zeus, one of the "Seven Wonders" of the Ancient World. 

The Philippeion was a circular memorial of ivory and gold in Ionic-style. It contained statues of Philip's family, including his son Alexander the Great. The Philippeion was crafted by the Athenian sculptor Leochares in commemoration of Philip of Macedon's victory at the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC). It is the only temple on the site dedicated to a human, and I wondered if this was Alexander's way of showing the Greeks who was really in charge.

The Doric-style Heraion, dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus and one of the most important female deities. It may have originally been dedicated to Zeus, but he left when his own larger temple was built. The Heraion was destroyed by an earthquake in the early 4th century AD, and was never rebuilt. In modern times, the temple is the location where the torch of the Olympic flame is lit, by focusing the rays of the sun.

There is also a spot near the Heraion where every two years the modern Olympic Games' torch is lit by focusing the sun's rays in a ponderously earnest, made-up ceremony that portends the blandly ostentatious, Disney-style folkloric parades to come weeks later. If that's where the ancient games were headed, I have new-found respect for Theodosius.

Though packs of shepherded tourists dotted the landscape, the ruins are widespread, and there is probably the opportunity for solitude if sought. It seemed we visited each highlight for about as much time as it takes to read my short anecdote. I found myself wishing the tour were about an hour longer. I would have appreciated the time and opportunity to self-guide and read the placards at each of the various archaeological sites. That is the drawback of most any shore excursion. It's always good for a taste, but not a full course meal of cultural immersion.

The relatively brief tour concluded at the ruins of the great stadium that held the actual games over a period of five summer days every four years. Here the site really came alive for me; the archway entrance was reminiscent of a modern athletic field, and the dimensions of its open space allowed me to imagine I could hear the echo of 40,000 spectators cheering as we entered the stadium.

As part of the tour, ten of us participated in a footrace of about 150 meters down the ancient track. Tom and I joined the competitors, me mainly to ensure my son took the opportunity, though I scouted the competition. We all decided to forego the ancient custom of nudity; clothing in such hot weather adds to the challenge really, and with female competition we were already bucking tradition. I was hard put to it with a couple of men hot on my heels at first, though I paced myself well for a good finishing kick in sandals. I wasn't sweating too much before the sprint, but I was afterwards. This was my first race in probably 26-27 years, so I was vainly happy to come away an Olympic champion of sorts, olive victory wreath and all. But the competition did not include any college-aged athletes. I completed my victory lap just in time to congratulate an octogenarian upon finishing. However, for a brief time I could say I had won the last footrace on the original Olympic field.

We take things like arches for granted. Sublime engineering, they are built to last. This is the gateway to the ancient Olympic stadium.

I could imagine the cheers of 40,000 spectators here 2500 years ago.

Lining up for a footrace of about half the length of the stadium (300 meters is the full length), maybe 150 meters. Three more guys were to the left, for a total of 10 participants. The rest of the tourists were smart.
Petty vanity, I glory in my victory after announcing "beers are on the tour guide!" Now uncomfortably hot, my shirt sopping wet, I began to wish I hadn't worn black. Actually, I was starting to wish I hadn't worn anything. It was time to leave, before I got too into the spirit of the ancient games.

Poignant were the dozens of inscribed marble pillars just outside the stadium, each naming a champion, the date of the games, and his home city and sport. I wished I could read the Ancient Greek inscriptions and was mildly bemused to learn our local guide couldn't either. Some of these pedestals still had "footprints," where the feet of long gone bronze statues of the competitors were once set. These few champions still live on in a way, if in name only. How many other pedestals to the ancient greats have been lost over centuries of flood and earthquake, or have been cut into bricks that may support a newer, ruder building even today, or were ground to mortar? Could any of these men, celebrated in their day, have imagined how fleeting his immortality would be? Do many modern celebrities now? As I pondered, some other tourist was winning a race on the hallowed track of Olympia.

Not for the last time, I wished I could read Ancient Greek. Unfortunately, our guide couldn't either... I wonder whether a ponderous exercise of transcribing into Google Translate would bear fruit?

Another of the monuments to an ancient champion, now no more than a forgotten name and city state, and the name of his competition. Note the "footprints" into which a bronze statue of the champion was once set.

I hadn't cooled down yet when we got back to the bus; the temperature listed was 86 degrees C, and I wryly noted the error as I vainly adjusted the sputtering air conditioning over my seat while sweating profusely. We made the compulsory shopping stop on the way back to port, but I haven't minded such things in Greece as much as for Caribbean travel, where every port of call is the same tropical mall and the requests for tips are heavy handed. We haven't experienced any hard sells this trip, thankfully. Therefore, I didn't think twice about buying a bottle of local olive oil. The sample of strong ouzo may have loosened my wallet. We all got a t-shirt as part of the tour too, unfortunately one just like Dad bought.

Like Olympia, the heat, my victory and these souvenirs won't last forever. The glory is in the moment that fades into nostalgic memory.

Tomorrow is Athens.
August 9th, 2013