Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Honeymooners, Day Seven: Olympia Has Fallen

Our first port of call was Katakolon, Greece.  According to the Norwegian Cruise Line website, "This quaint little seaside town on the Ionian Sea is the gateway to Ancient Olympia, where Greek mythology was born and the first Olympiad was held. You may still be able to hear the distant echoes of the ancient Greeks cheering as you tour the ruins of one of the most important and exciting sanctuaries of antiquity."

That whole echo thing sounded a bit cray-cray, but we awoke early that morning and hopped aboard an Olympia-bound tour bus all the same.  Olympia was added to the registry of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1989, and ya'll know I love to collect those.  I'll spare you the suspense: No echoes were heard.  I did hear static, though.  Lots and lots of static.

This was the first tour I had ever done (outside of a museum setting) that used wireless transmitters and receivers to provide a tour to a large group of people.  I must say I wasn't a particular fan of the technology.  Drift too far away from your guide,  and you are rewarded with and earful of static…which a shutterbug like myself will do without without fail.  I spent the majority of the tour snapping photos until I heard static, running ahead to reunite with the group…snapping photos until I heard static, and repeating.  As tours moved quickly to keep up with their guides, I found myself weaving in and around crowds of people just as rushed for time and static avoidance and perfect photos as myself.

A particularly troublesome spot was the Altar of Hera.  As you can see, this is the most boring photo ever taken.  As the static grew louder in our ears, a dozen tourists clamored for space around this thing trying to find an interesting angle.  I don't think any of us found it.  So why is it so important?

It is from this altar that the Olympic flame is lit.  The tradition began in 1936 during the Berlin games at what is considered the start of the contemporary Olympics.  The torch is ignited months before the opening ceremony via sunlight and parabolic mirror.  The torch travels around Greece on a short relay and then begins its journey to the host city following a ceremony at the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens (which we will see in the next post).

The altar stands at the east end of the Temple of Hera, a Doric-style temple featuring a single row of columns along each side (six on the narrow sides, sixteen on the long sides).  When it was  originally constructed, the temple contained wooden columns, but they were eventually replaced by limestone.  The temple was build around 600BC and was destroyed by an earthquake in the early 4th century AD.
Legend tells that the disc of the Sacred Truce was kept within the confines of the temple.  The disc contained the text of a truce agreement made between all of the Greek cities that suspended hostilities for a specific period of time so that competitors could participate in the games without fear for their safety.

Pictured here is the Stadium,  which was estimated to have a capacity of 45,000 spectators.  Many tourists like to take their shoes off and run the length of the track.  They looked silly, but appeared to be having fun.  We were content taking photos.

Some other random pics from the day that did not have useful plaques from which to lift information follow…

TJ apparently found is name on this stone, but it's all Greek to me.

Hera may have had her own house of worship, but her husband was not to be outdone.  The Temple of Zeus featured six columns on the narrow and thirteen columns on the long sides.  The labors of Hercules, Zeus's son, were depicted on the twelve interior slabs.  The temple was destroyed by the earthquakes of 522 and 551AD.  

Inside the Temple of Zeus, one used to be able to find the ivory and gold statue of Zeus, sculpted by Phidias, which was lauded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  It is said that the statue resided at the western end of the temple and stood over 40 feet tall.  The Olympics were abolished in 392AD by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, who saw the games as a pagan rite.  It is theorized that the statue was moved to Constantinople (present day Istanbul) at this time, where it was ultimately destroyed in a citywide fire in 475AD.  Another school of thought says it remained in Olympia, where it perished by fire in 425AD.  Either way, Zeus went out in a blaze of glory.  To the left is a conceptualized rendering of what the statue may have looked like that can be found in The Archaeology Museum of Olympia, which we also happened to be our final stop of the day.

The Archaeology Museum of Olympia's permanent exhibition contains finds from the Olympia excavations dating from prehistoric times to the Early Christian period.  The museum features a noteworthy collection of sculpture, bronze, and terracottas.

Although there were many fine pieces in the museum, we were in instantaneous and mutual agreement
that the showstopper was Hermes of Praxiteles, a marble sculpture depicting the messenger of the gods carrying the infant Dionysos, god of wine and madness.  The statue captures the duo in the middle of a journey to the Nymphs, to whom Hermes had been tasked by Zeus to deliver Dionysos.  It is speculated that the missing arm held a bunch of grapes, a symbol associated with the future god of wine.  Reproductions of the statue could be seen throughout the remainder of our travels in Greece, and have even popped up in archaeological sites we have visited in Israel.  None hold a candle to the original.

The statue was discovered in 1877 during an excavation of the Temple of Hera and is attributed to Praxiteles (4th century BC).  A noticeable lack of historical replicas indicates that, despite the statue's prominence in the modern day gift shop circuit, it probably wasn't one of the artist's most revered pieces at the time.  Even so, and I'm sorry, but...

The Nike of Paionios depicts a winged woman leaning forward, her cloak waving behind her, wings open, right foot resign upon an eagle - a symbol of Zeus.  This imagery gives the impression of her flying descent from Olympus to proclaim victory. The statue was an offering to Zeus from the Messenians and the Naupactians for their victory against the Spartans in the Archidameian war, circa 421BC.

The main gallery featured sculptured ornaments from the Temple of Zeus.  There were 42 figures decorating the two temple pediments.  This collection is one of the best surviving ensembles of ancient Greek works and are dated circa early 5th century BC.  The eastern pediment depicts the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos, with Zeus featured as the dominant figure.  The western pediment depicts the abudcion of the Lapith women by Centaurs, and Apollo takes center stage.

And now, some random museum shots…

It's apparently a federal offense to the photos of yourself posing with sculpture inside museums, because everywhere we went in Greece, people yelled at us for trying.  This is most devastating Managed to sneak a couple though, just because we're hard core.  (Also, if it actually IS a federal offense, we were framed.)

And with that, it was time to get back on the bus.  It was a great day overall.  We were able to check a city off of the bucket list and saw some amazing museum pieces that we weren't expecting at all.  I wasn't a fan of the audio tour and do feel that the tour scene in general really detracts from one's enjoyment of an experience from a time management perspective, but for cruise ship vacationing, it really is the safest option, as excursions booked through the ship insure you against missing your ride due to late arrivals back at the docks.

We returned to the ship that evening exhausted and in need of refreshment, so of course we stopped at at the bar.

Bartender:  "Did you go on any excursions today?"
Me:  "Yeah, we went to Olympia."
Bartender:  "And?  How was it?"
Me:  "Very poorly maintained.  Everything fell down."
Bartender:  "Hah.  Olympia has Fallen."
Me:  "That's a terrible movie," and then, turning to TJ "He just named my blog."
TJ:  "I know."

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