Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria Ariana (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in the Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Olympia, in the footsteps of Pausanias

How about walking through a city with a 2,000 years old guidebook in your hands and still finding your way around? That is actually possible in Olympia where you are able to walk in the footsteps of Pausanias who visited and described the city in the second century AD (see: Pausanias - Fϋhrer durch Olympia). Back then, Olympia shone in all its glory some of which we still can find today although we need to put our imagination to work as well.

Olympia is the very place where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC, a four-yearly event that was celebrated until 393 AD, spanning twelve centuries. The city definitely has something to tell if you listen closely!
According to tradition, the Olympic Games were held at the first full moon after the summer solstice. The high priestess of Olympia would mark the start of these games by lighting the Olympic flame. Participating individuals and city-states would bring offerings to ask for the favor of Zeus and Hera in their respective temples. Among such expensive gifts, some of which made it to the local museum, we find shields, helmets, money, weapons, and statues by the greatest artists of the time. Many cities, in order to raise their prestige, built their own treasuries to house their valued offerings.

From a simple foot race over the entire length of the stadium (192m), the Olympic Games grew into a five-day event with 18 different competitions. These included wrestling and boxing, foot races over longer distances, discus and javelin throwing, chariot and horse racing, and the pentathlon. To allow the participants to travel unharmed through bellicose city-states, a three-month truce was called all over Greece and Olympia attracted as many as 40,000 visitors. The prize of the victors was meager in our modern eyes: a crown of olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the nearby sacred grove. True to Greek idealism of that time, the real prize was eternal glory and fame reaching a sense of immortality.

Like Pausanias, my first stop is at the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that was completed in 457 BC. It is impossible to follow his detailed description of the roof, the pediments, the metopes, the votive offerings; there is not even an inkling of the famous statue of Zeus created in 432 BC by nobody less than Phidias, whose workshop is nearby. All I find are massive foundations, the steps of the stylobate, with tumbled down drums from the archaic Doric columns one of which has kindly be re-erected for us to visualize. Originally this temple measuring 64x28m was the largest in Greece, six columns wide and 13 columns long, reaching a height of almost 11 meters. It is hard to imagine the beauty and the glory of this building staring at these weathered gray limestone elements which were coated with a thin layer of stucco. The impressive east and west pediments of this temple have been retrieved and are now exhibited in their full splendor at the local museum. They are facing each other over the entire length of the room, set at eye level enabling the visitor to closely witness the mythical chariot race of Pelops and Oinomaos on the east pediment (the fundamental myth of Olympia) and the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs on the west pediment with a three-meter tall Apollo at its center. Just try to imagine these pediments when standing in front of the remains of the Temple of Zeus with the huge loose drums of the columns lying on the ground. It must have taken the breath away from any visitor to the Games!

At the museum, there is also a splendid light-footed Nike of Paionos (424 BC) that once stood on a triangular base at the southeastern corner of Temple of Zeus, still in situ. Her waving cloak combined with the opening of her wings gives the impression of her flying descent from Mount Olympus to proclaim her victory. The Nike itself is 2.10 meters tall and the base puts her nearly 9 meters up in the air. The inscription “The Messenians and the Naupactians dedicated to Olympic Zeus a tithe of the booty taken from their enemies” refers to their victory over Sparta probably around 421 BC.

The very statue of Zeus in the inner temple is beyond imagination although descriptions from antiquity mention that it basically was an acrolith, i.e. a wooden frame covered with ivory and gold (see also my earlier blog: The ladies of Morgantina), with inlaid eyes. Zeus was crowned with an olive wreath; in his right hand, he held an elephantine statue of Nike, the goddess of Victory, also crowned with a wreath and holding out a ribbon, while in his left hand he was holding the divine scepter. Although the father of the gods was seated, the statue stood 12.4 meters high meaning that his head nearly hit the ceiling. A recent study has revealed that the slabs of 2.8 to 3 cm thick Pentelic marble used for the temple roofing, let through more light than marble from Paros used for the sculptures in the pediment and apparently lit up Zeus’ features (especially the eyes) once the visitor’s eyesight became accustomed to the darkness inside the temple. In order to preserve the ivory body parts of Zeus, these were regularly rubbed with oil that was kept in a special shallow reservoir in front of the statue that may have acted as a reflecting pool as well.

For obvious reasons, Pausanias next stop and mine is at the nearby workshop of Phidias. Since this building was converted into an early Christian church in the 5th century AD, the overall construction and layout have been preserved – enough, it seems, for scholars to recreate the scale model of this workshop that occupies a prominent place at the Museum of Olympia. It was built especially to house this work of art and it was lit by rows of windows on three different levels. Phidias’ workshop measuring 32x14.5m  could be identified at the hand of the many tools and terracotta molds that were found inside although the solid proof came from a small terracotta cup that was unearthed within its walls carrying the inscription “I belong to Pheidias” and is now exhibited at the museum. The artist’s house must have emitted a certain prestige and elegance when judging by the corner antefixes retrieved on the premises. But then, he was a renowned and accomplished artist, reputed for having worked closely with Pericles at the reconstruction of the Acropolis in Athens. All the sculptures of the Parthenon are by Phidias or were made under his guidance, and his masterpiece certainly was the chryselephantine statue of Athena created some eight years earlier.

The Temple of Hera (the wife of Zeus) was the very first large building in Olympia, built between 650-600 BC making it the oldest known Doric temple built of stone (earlier sanctuaries were made of wood). It is also the first well-preserved peripteral temple, meaning that the columns ran all around the inner sanctum, sixteen deep and six wide. Inside the Heraion was the table on which the garlands for the victors in the Olympic Games were prepared. The museum hosts a wonderful well-restored terracotta acroterion in the shape of a disk that stood on top of each pediment. It may represent the sun or another heavenly body and is unique for its size as well as for the variety of its painted decorations. Better known is certainly the gorgeous Hermes by Praxiteles (late 4th century BC) that was discovered among the ruins of the Heraion. This perfectly rendered Hermes is holding the infant Dionysus who as the future god of wine reaches out for the now lost bunch of grapes which Hermes probably held in his raised right hand. The finely polished 2.13 meters high statue is made of Parian marble and fills the room with its very presence.

At the Philippeon, built by Philip II and finished under Alexander the Great, Pausanias witnessed the statues of both Macedonian kings together with those of Amyntas and Eurydike, Philip’s parents and of Olympias, his wife – all executed by Leochares in ivory and gold. This circular building finished around 338 BC and built to commemorate Philips victory at Chaeronea, has been partially restored to give at least some idea of this exceptional monument although the grand statues are since long gone. For a full description of the Philippeon and its historical context, please refer to my earlier blog: The Philippeon at Olympia.

On the way to the Stadium, then and now, the visitor inevitably passes by the large Nymphaeum donated by Herodes Atticus and his wife Regilla. The fifteen niches of the circular, two-story high back wall were populated with statues of Herodes Atticus himself, together with those of several Roman Emperors like Antoninus Pius, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and their family members. Several of these marble effigies have been recovered and can be admired at the Museum of Olympia. To name just a few, we find Athenaides, daughter of Herodes Atticus; Annia Faustina or Lucilla, daughters of Emperor Aurelius; Marcus Aurelius himself; the emperors Hadrian and Titus. On the edge of the pool separating the circular part of the rectangular basin in the front stood a life-size bull, also moved to the museum, which carries an inscription left by Herodes Atticus’ wife reading: “Regilla, priestess of Demeter offers the water and appendices to Zeus”. Each end of this rectangular basin was decorated with a small tholos.

Next to this grand Nymphaeum twelve Treasury Houses of which only five have been identified line up before reaching the Stadium. Today, it is difficult to separate the outline of these buildings from the 6th and 5th century BC but this lack of insight is largely compensated by the 16 basis of Zanes (the plural form of Zeus), whose bronze statues ranging from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD lined up the way to the entrance of the Stadium. One of these statues even represented Alexander the Great as Zeus! They were actually built using the fines which athletes had to pay for cheating at the Games. The athlete’s name and infringement were recorded on these basis for all to know. They stood here as a warning to future competitors. I find it quite amazing to learn that so many statues were made of costly bronze, silver, and even electron; some even were also chryselephantine sculptures with their hands and face made of gold or ivory (beside the famous Zeus). The wealth of Olympia is far beyond our imagination.

The Stadium is, of course, the piece the resistance standing for all what Olympia was about, the very core of the Olympic Games. An inspiring portion of the vault that originally covered the entire entrance way, the Krypte, added in Hellenistic times is still visible today. Emerging from this tunnel into the blasting light of the Stadium must have added to the athletes’ sense of expectation. The Stadium area was 212.5 meters long and 28 meters wide, but the race field proper met the standard length of 192 meters. Even today, it is quite exciting to stand on the stone departure line facing the challenge of the entire length of the track. In antiquity, some 40,000 spectators from all over Greece would have cheered their favorite figure from the sloping sides, simply sitting on the grass. The only benches were those reserved for the judges, the so-called Exedra set halfway on the south side of the Stadium. Opposite this Exedra and still visible today stood the altar of Demeter Hamyne.

Whether Alexander ever visited Olympia or attended the Olympic Games is uncertain but we do know that the news of his birth in 356 BC was brought to Philip together with the news that his horses had won. This competition was held at the adjacent 780 meters long Hippodrome.

It makes one wonder where all these guests and spectators stayed during the games and it is surprising to find a large guesthouse inside the precinct of Olympia, known as the Leonidaion. It was built around 330 BC and entirely financed by Leonidas of Naxos. It is said to be the largest hostel of antiquity and with its 74 x 80 meters, it is indeed very impressive. What’s more, it must have been a quite pleasant place to stay. The rooms were located on all four sides of the buildings around a central atrium trimmed with 44 Doric columns, imitating the Greek fashion of the time. The rooms on the west side were larger and more luxurious than those on the three other sides. A gallery counting 138 Ionic columns, 5.5 meters tall ran around the outside of the Leonidaion. In Roman times the building was converted into living quarters for their dignitaries and a wavy pool complete with a central island was added. The ornate terracotta antefixes from this building is particularly handsome with its leave motives and lion head spouts which can be admired at the Museum of Olympia.

The last complex of importance is composed of the Palaestra and the Gymnasium where all the competitors trained for at least one month before the start of the games. The Palaestra was conceived in the 3rd century BC for the pugilists and wrestlers to exercise. The building was almost square, 66mx77m with a central courtyard surrounded by a colonnade giving access to spaces for practical use like the cloakrooms, teaching rooms, bathrooms, the rooms where athletes could rub themselves with oil and sand, etc. Adjacent on the northern side is the Gymnasium built about a century later. This building is much larger, measuring 120mx220m and is entirely closed off. Like the Palaestra it is set around a vast central courtyard with porticos on all four sides. The roof of these wide Stoas was supported on the inner side by a double row of Doric columns. The Gymnasium was appropriately used for those sports requiring more space like running, javelin and discus throwing, etc. By bad weather, the athletes could still exercise under the covered Stoa. Behind the Stoa on the west side were the rooms dedicated to the athletes, while on the east side the Stoa was closed off by a solid outer wall (see also: Olympia, an ongoing excavation project).

It is evident that Olympia cannot be seen without its museum and vice-versa. They truly complement each other.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Olympia]

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