March 23rd, 2011

Greece - Day Four

We started the day in the archaeological museum at Olympia.  It houses the friezes, pediments and statues that had been unearthed at the sanctuary there, which was primarily dedicated to Zeus and which originally housed one of the seven wonders of the world—the chryselephantine statues of Zeus, which was made by Pheidias, the same artist who made the statue of Athena which once graced the Parthenon.  Two pieces stood out particularly in the museum: the beautifully preserved figure of Apollo on the temple pediment and the statue of Hermes holding an infant Dionysus, which was found in the temple of Hera not far from the main temple.  The truly incredible thing about them both is their remarkable preservation when most of the other friezes and figures had been so badly damaged or weathered (even though they were made out of the same materials – I asked).

From the museum, we moved on to the extensive complex of the stadium and sacred buildings.  It would have been breathtaking in any event, but the riot of blooms overrunning the site made it just about perfect.  Daisies were everywhere, interspersed with the vivid red of anemones and the occasional iris. 

Our first order of business was the Olympic field, where our son ran the length (it was run back and forth rather than continuously, like a marathon, and thus smaller than we’d imagined) and leapt triumphantly over the marble finish line.  He and his father also wrestled in the palestra, which was the place where athletes, particularly wrestlers, trained.  We marveled at the impressive proportions of the Temple of Zeus.  It would have been amazing to see the legendary ivory and gold statue of Zeus on his ebony throne, but, unfortunately, it was moved to Constantinople during the time Greece was under Turkish rule and later destroyed, just like the chryselephantine statue of Athena.  It’s absolutely tragic that so much was damaged at the various sites we’ve visited by invasions, advocates of other religions trying to wipe out the competition or natural forces, like floods and falling rock.  One of the most intriguing structures was the tholos (round) temple built by King Philip II of Macedon to celebrate his victory at Chaironeia in 338.  It turns out that such round temples were always built in celebration of some victory rather than in honor of the worship of one of the Olympians. 

Sadly, there wasn’t much left of the workshop of Pheidias, the brilliant artist behind the legendary chryselephantine statues.  (The one of Zeus was said to be so large that if he’d stood up from his throne, he would have blown through the roof of his temple.)  A basilica had been built over top of the ancient site, which in turn fell into disuse and ruin.

Our next stop was for wine and ouzo tasting and shopping, after which we continued on to Delphi, where we had the evening at leisure to stroll the picturesque town with its stunning views, high up as we were among the mountain peaks.  We (okay, I) sipped beer and watched the sun set in a glass-and-wooden taberna cantilevered over the treetops.  It was one of the loveliest evenings I can remember.