Discovering the Ancient Olympics in Greece

the sites of the Panhellenic games

While we think of the Olympic Games as a primal symbol of international competition, the Greek cities of Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia made up the Panhellenic cycle of games--Greek men  only and very likely rich Greeks, considering the time they spent preparing for the cycle.

Olympic Games: Facts and Myths

Panhellenic Games Map

(Game Sites Marked in Black)

The four sites of the Panhellenic Games are nicely spaced over the Peloponnese. An easy itinerary can take you to all of them, and provides a good introduction to Greece and ancient culture.

One should also visit Corinth if there's time.

panhellenic games sites map

Be an Ancient Olympic Star

If you really want to know what the experience of running a race the ancient way (except you get to wear clothing, a white tunic to be exact), you can run barefoot and fancy free in the stadium at Nemea in the New Nemean Games.

Steven Miller, who excavated at Nemea, has led modern games since 1996. While the 2020 games are posponed ue to cornonavirus, keep an eye on the website for later dates.

Travel Notes on Visiting the Sites of the Games

Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia made up the Panhellenic cycle of games. While Olympia has a decent museum, the site is less spectacular. It's also the furthest away from the others. I suggest you visit Delphi first--mostly because it's the best archaeological site overall, then Isthmia and Nemea can be done on the same day.

Isthmia has some interesting advantages. Eating beside the Corinth canal is recommended. Go to the bridge over the canal at Isthmia and either look for a restaurant on the far side, or go to the left of the bridge and sit at the seafood restaurant with a terrace right next to the canal. If you see a cruise  ship passing, you'll be amazed it how it squeezes throught the narrow passage and how its height blocks the sun and makes it look more enormous then it is. For this reason the bridge, called the submersible bridge of Isthmia, goes below the water to allow passage of the large ships because it's the shortest distance to clear. There are rumors that when it returns from its underwater adventure there are sometimes fish and octopus dredged up with it, but I've never seen it. 

There is an archaeological museum in front of the excavations, which include the 700 BC Archaeic temple of Poseidon and somewhat restored Roman baths with mosaics restored by the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia, a project I volunteered for. Interesting is the starting mechanism created to stop runners from leaving early.  

During the excavations we stayed at the wonderful Vasilios Marinos Rooms in Archaia Korinthos.

The Sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea evolved with the institution of the Panhellenic Nemean Games in the 6th century B.C. The stadium at Nemea was in use between 330 b.c. and 271 b.c. after which it was abandoned and used for herding. The running surface consisted of 600 feet of hard packed clay. Distance along the track was marked every 100 feet by a small stone marker. Around the edges of the track a stone channel carried water to the athletes and spectators from a small spring. The starting line was a line of stones with toe grooves.

The small village near the site is officially known as Archaia Nemea--if you are taking a bus to Nemea you'd best tell the driver you want to get off here, as the excavations close by. The museum "contains a collection of pictures of Nemea by travellers of the 18th and 20th centuries, coins of ancient visitors to Nemea, items related to the athletic activity on the site, prehistoric finds (pottery, tools, weapons etc.) from sites in the district of Nemea, pottery and jewellery from the Mycenaean cemetery at Aidonia and the settlement of Aghia Eirene, architectural parts from monuments at Nemea and other sites, and a collection of inscriptions from Nemea, Phlius and Petri."

The athletically inclined will definitely want to take the hike up to Delphi's Stadium. It's one of the most complete examples you'll see (and the site of Delphi is a must-see in any case). Perched on the Delphi's highest point, the stadium could accommodate 7000 spectators. The remains of a Roman triumphal arch are found on one end. You can see the stone cut starting blocks on both ends. Look closely at the walls, there is ancient graffiti there, including a wine prohibition. The stadium is 187 meters long; the track 178 meters. See the Visitor Information. For historic temperature and rainfall charts, see Delphi Travel Weather.

This information can allow you to create your own itinerary, or you could visit Nemia and Isthmia combined with a stay in nearby Corinth or in Athens. Have fun planning your travel in Greece.

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