Elis and Olympia
From the ancient “cities” of Elis, Olympia is of course the best known and also the most interesting to view. Reading Pausanias shows that Olympia was not a city-sanctuary combination, as was Delphi, for example. Olympia is purely a Zeus Sanctuary (also known as the Altis), with some sanctuaries around. In ancient times the polis was Elis, the name of the region Elis, or – even earlier – Pisa in the region of Pisatis.
Games (and its origins)
The Altis is a very green area, with numerous trees, on the south side the Alpheios River, on the west side the Kladeos River. The north side is bordered by the Kronos mountain. Olympia is known as the place of the Olympic Games, a four-yearly festival that was considered the most important in Greece. During these games (the earliest historical games date from 776 B.C., the last from 393 A.D.) it was common that all Greek nations (or cities, poleis), if only temporarily, ended their feuds and wars, so that the athletes could participate in this festival in a sportive, sanctified atmosphere. The origins of the games are shrouded in mystery, and have been the subject of debate since ancient times. Pausanias reports several points of origin, most of them mythical. For example, during the earliest games, the gods themselves would have competed against each other, while in a subsequent version Heracles was the founder (with his cousin Iolaos as the main sports hero). The most widespread myth about the origin of the games is the myth of Pelops (namesake of the Peloponnese, the “island of Pelops”) and Hippodameia, the daughter of Oinomaos.
After 394 A.D. the “pagan” Games had been abolished by imperial order, the temples were destroyed in 426 and left to the natural elements. Earthquakes and floods did the rest, the German excavators started their work in an almost empty valley.