Located in the northwestern Peloponnese*, Olympia was the legendary home of the Titans, the mythical giants who ruled the earth before the Olympian gods (who resided at the unrelated site of Mt. Olympus). It later became the site of the main sanctuary* of the Greek god Zeus. Pilgrims from all parts of the Greek world traveled to Olympia to worship at his shrine. Olympia is also important as the site of the first Olympiad, or Olympic Games, held in 776 B.C.
Around 1200 B.C. the Greeks established the cult* of Zeus at Olympia, which survived into the A.D. 300s. The most famous building at Olympia was the temple of Zeus, completed around 457 B.C. Inside the temple stood a colossal statue of the god sculpted by Phidias, a well-known sculptor from Athens. The gold and ivory statue—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—presented Zeus seated on a throne. The Roman emperor Caligula was so impressed by the statue that he planned to take it back to Rome. However, the ship intended to carry it was struck by lightning, perhaps a sign from the god himself.
Olympia’s importance as a sanctuary declined for a time under the Romans but then revived under the emperors Tiberius and Nero. In A.D. 426 the emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of the temple. In the A.D. 500s, the entire temple area of Olympia was buried under debris from an earthquake. The debris preserved the ancient objects for future generations. (See also Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman.)
* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece
* sanctuary place for worship
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god