The Olympian Landscape and Its Restoration

The Olympic Landscape and Its Restoration after the Fires, by Olympia Vikatou, Katerina Paraschi (p. 108, Olympics – Past & Present)

© 2013 Qatar Olympic & Sports Museum, Qatar Museums Authority and Prestel Verlag, Munich-London-New York.

While the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens were being organised, an epic project was undertaken in Olympia to promote the arhaeological sites and museums.(1) One of the most important works performed was the setting up of a fire protection and fire safety system for the archaeological sites and the museum.

On Sunday, August 26, 2007, in the early afternoon, the big forest fire that raged in Elis and destroyed the abundance of vegetation, many properties and assets, but also, above all, human lives, also – unfortunately – reached Olympia (Fig. 1). Within a few minutes it ruined the beauty and contemplativeness at the heart of the Olympian landscape, the hills surrounding the Archaeological Museum, the Kronos hill, the Academy and the grove around the memorial to Pierre de Coubertin. The fire was averted by fire engines and firemen and also by an unexpected change in wind direction. The Archeological Museum and the Sanctuary went unscathed, but the plant community in the surroundings was lost. The fire protection system worked properly, under its technical specifications, until the fire managed to advance right up to the museum.(2)

The fires of 2007 were not a unique event. Olympia had been ravaged by fires earlier, in the 19th and 20th century (1932). Moreover, the forests of Aleppo firs, which had dominated in the area previously, can be regarded as a secondary phenomenon; they grew in the wake of forest fires or other manmade circumstances. Nature doubtlessly possesses the ability to renew, but in this case the period for natural restoration seemed too long. The major archaeological and historical significance of the area, and the imminent ceremony to light the Olympic Flame on March 24, 2008 for the Games in Beijing, made renaturation necessary considerably sooner. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture stepped in straight away, and engaged in a veritable ‘titanic struggle’ for Olympia. The compilation of a corresponding study,(3) but also realisation of the enormous project, which had to be completed before the Olympic flame was lit on March 24, 2008, was taken on by the National Agricultural Research Foundation (Ethniko Idryma Agrotikis Erevnas: ΕΘ.Ι.Α.ΓΕ). The Central Archaeological Council (KAS) imposed the condition that the choice of plants should be based on the stock of plants listed in old testimonies by travellers in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also based on the profile of the Olympic landscape as it was known before the fire. As far as that goes, sources had to be looked for in ancient texts and in the writings of travellers to Greece.

The beauty and tranquility of the Alpheios valley has enjoyed renown from antiquity to the present day. Pindar(4) and Strabo(5), but above all Pausanias, wrote about the trees that stood in the Altis(6) (including wild olives, oaks, plane trees, myrtle and willow trees(7)). Moreover, the travellers of the 19th and 20th century supplied valuable information and descriptions of the idyllic loveliness of the Olympic landscape;(8) engravings (Fig. 2) record the Alpheios valley and the Kronos hill, visible from afar, which in the photographs of the first excavations of 1875 – when it was not yet overgrown with firs – is not far removed from its appearance today. According to the description by the archaeologist Vasileios Leonardos,(9) this picture changed at the beginning of the 20th century. For centuries, in its unique evocativeness, beauty, and calm, the Olympic landscape has been bound closely with the Zeus sanctuary, with peace, with brotherhood and with the Olympic Games. It exerts a unique magic on visitors and dispenses harmony and freedom.(10) Nikos Kazantzakis describes Olympia in the following way: “For many hours I looked at the holy landscape of Olympia. Nobility, calm concentration, laughing, hospitable valley between low, soft mountains, sheltered from the wild northerly wind, from the scorching southerly wind, open only to the west, towards the sea, where a chill wind rises through the ravine of the Alpheios. There is no landscape in Greece that urges peace and reconciliation so sweetly and constantly.”(11)

(1) The restorations of monuments in this regard, improvement of service premises, restoration of buildings, exhibitions in museums etc. were funded by the 3rd European Union Community Support Framework.

(2) As these were not fire extinguishing systems, but merely fire protection systems, none of these was able to halt the rolling flames that ravaged the densely overgrown hills of Olympia. The fact that the museum and some sections of the forest remained unscathed by the fire was thanks to the comprehensive and thorough clearing performed by the 7th Ephoreia, but also to the constant wetting of the museum area and of the roof against the risk of fire, combined with daily use of the fire protection system.

(3) Numerous scientists of different disciplines took part in the study, see ΕΘΙΑΓΕ 2007.

(4) 8th Olympic Victory Song (Pindar 8, 9-10): “Receive then, Pisa’s lovely grove on the Alpheios, this song of praise, with the garlanded pageant, meekly.”

(5) Strabo writes in Geographika 8, 3, 30, that the stadium is to be found in a grove of wild olive trees.

(6) Pausanias 5, 7, 7; 5, 11, 10; 5, 13, 2-3; 5, 14, 2-3; 5, 15, 3; 5, 15, 10.

(7) Pausanias 5, 15, 3: “Close to the Zeus temple and the altar of the cooling nymphs the beautifully wreathed olive tree was also to be found, out of whose branches the wreaths for the Olympian athletes were plaited.”

(8) Pouqueville 1805, 67; Dodwell 1819, 325-326; Leake 1830, 23–44; Beulé 1855, 245-246; Wyse 1865.

(9) Leonardos 1901: “The famous valley offered a nature that pierced deep into feelings and soul and radiated cheerfulness […] a greatly diverse and downright teeming plant world” and describes further: “Slopes of firs […] there flourishes the tame olive and the dense victory wreath donor […] the sweet dream of the athletes […] the plane and the lofty white poplar brought by Heracles from the Acheron […] thousands of shrubs and blossoms […] myrtle, wild pistachio, the many-branched and root-rich asphodel […] the red-fruited arbutus, thorn bush, oleander and anemones […] the gold-yellow crocus and the white narcissus, the yellow gorse bushes and the horny Judas tree.”

(10) Vikatou 2009b; Vikatou 2010.

(11) Kazantzakis 1958, 230–244.

(continues to page 113)