In ancient times the Greeks held one of their most important festivals, The Olympic Games, in honor of the King of their gods, Zeus. Like our modern Olympics, athletes traveled from distant lands to compete in these games. The Olympics were first started in 776 B.C. and held at a shrine to Zeus located on the western coast of Greece in a region called Peloponnesus. The games, held every four years, helped to unify the Greek city-states. A truce was declared during the games and wars were stopped. Safe passage was given to all traveling to the site, called Olympia, for the season of the games.
This temple followed a design used on many large Grecian temples. It was similar to the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The temple was built on a raised, rectangular platform. Thirteen large columns supported the roof along the sides and six supported it on each end. A gently-peaked roof topped the building. The triangles, or "pediments," created by the sloped roof at the ends of the building were filled with sculpture.
The Greeks decided to put a statue of their god in it. The sculptor chosen for this great task was a man named Phidias. He had already built a forty-foot high statue of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon in Athens and had also done much of the sculpture on the exterior of that temple. After his work in Athens was done, Phidias traveled to Olympia to start on what was considered his best work, the statue of Zeus.
In its right hand the statue held the figure of Nike (the goddess of victory) and in its left was a scepter which was topped with an eagle. the throne was made of gold, ebony, ivory and inlaid with precious stones. Carved into the chair were figures of Greek gods and mystical animals, like the Sphinx. The figure's skin was composed of ivory and the beard, hair and robe of gold. Because the weather in Olympia was so damp, the statue required care so that the humidity would not crack the ivory. For this reason, it was constantly covered with oil kept in a special pool in the floor of the temple.
Besides the statue, there was little inside the temple. The Greeks wanted the interior of their shrines to be simple. The feeling it gave was probably very much like the Lincoln Memorial or Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C..
Copies of the statue were made, but none survived. Pictures found on coins give researchers clues about its appearance. Phidia's masterpiece lived on, though, at the temple in Olympia until 255 A.D. when the Olympics were abolished by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome.
Today the stadium at the site has been restored. Little is left of the original temple except a few columns. The statue, probably the most wonderful work at Olympia, is now gone.
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