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Ancient Elis, the largest city and capital of the city-state, was built on the north banks of the Pineios River, between the mountainous part of Elis (Akroreia) and its coastal lowlands (Elis Koile). The site was inhabited almost continuously from the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age (130,000/120,000 years before present) until the end of the Early Byzantine period (7th century AD), when the city was abandoned.
Oxylos is considered the city's mythical founder (12th-11th centuries BC). He allegedly took advantage of the Dorian invasion in order to subordinate the area's early inhabitants and founded the first settlement.
The city thrived in the early historical period (11th-10th centuries BC), during the late Archaic and early Classical periods (6th-5th centuries BC), and in the Early Roman period (2nd century BC - early 3rd century AD).
Large numbers of flint tools from surface layers suggest that the site was inhabited since the Palaeolithic. Habitation concentrated primarily in the area of the later theatre at the end of the Neolithic, and on the acropolis during the late third and early second millennia BC. The Mycenaean period saw the development of several settlements, whose cemeteries lie close to the limits of the later city. Several graves in the later city's agora date from the end of the Mycenaean period (mid-12th century BC).
The graves at the theatre and neighbouring east cemetery date to the early historical period, the so-called Dark Age (11th-10th centuries BC). The corresponding settlements were probably located nearby. The Geometric finds, which indicate the possible existence of two small temples, are limited, and there is even less evidence for the seventh century BC.
By contrast, the sixth century BC was a period of development witnessed by the finds from temples and public buildings. The introduction of democracy, the city's establishment as capital of the homonymous city-state, and its merger with the surrounding small settlements (471 BC) were landmarks in the history of Elis.
During the Peloponnesian War, the city's long-lived alliance with Sparta came to an end with devastating consequences for Elis. King Agis of Lacedaemon marched against Elis in 399 BC, King Philip II of Macedon supported the establishment of oligarchy and abolished democracy in 343 BC, and Telesphoros conquered the city in 313 BC.
Aided by Roman troops, the city guard repelled an attack by King Philip V of Macedon in 209 BC, and in 191 BC, Elis joined the Achaian League. In 146 BC, it was conquered by the Romans and became part of the Roman province of Achaia; it came under the full authority of the Roman Empire as part of the Provincia Macedoniae in the early first century BC.
Oxylos founded the Olympic Games when he embodied the Holy Temple of Olympia in the city-state of Ilida. The games were reorganized in the 8th century BC by the descendant of King Ifitos, who signed a treaty with King Likourgos of Sparti and Kleistheni of Pissa.
With this 'holy treaty' the whole area was considered sacred, thus securing peace and the success of the games. Since 776 B.C. the year when the first Olympic Games were held, the residents of Ilia were responsible for the protection of the Temple, which they lost in 668 BC and gained it back with the assistance of the Spartans in 580 BC.
From that point on to the end of the 5th century the city flourished. The main target of the state was not the political, but the cultural and other matters of the public and mostly the organization of the Olympic Games.
The games were organized every four years most possibly in July. The athletes, according to the rules had to come to Elis one month before the games for training. Friends and relatives came with them and as a result there were many "foreigners" from mainland Greece and the islands, as well as rich visitors from Asia Minor, Pontos, Great Greece and Africa.
Ilioi gave great attention to the organization of the games, which is obvious by the description of the city's market. The traveler Pausanias (2nd century AD), refered to the capital of Ilia, by describing gymnasiums, lodges, temples and sanctums, but no public buildings.They were decorated by a number of statues and sculptures made by famous artists of ancient times.
During the period of its great rise, the state of Ilia consisted of four regions: the Valley Ilida, the productive area where the capital of Ilia developed, the Acroreia, the Pisatida and the Trifilia.
The deterioration of the city began when the Byzantine emperor Theodosius 1st, banned the organization of the Olympic games in 393 AD and the life of the holy temple of Olympia came to an end. The earthquake that destroyed the country in the 6th century AD meant the end of the Ilia state.
In the 19th century travellers spotted the city of Ilida and made a map of the area. Elis was first excavated in 1910-1914 by the Austrian Archaeological Institute, whose director for the period 1911-1914 was Otto Walter. The Greek archaeologist Anastasios Orlandos participated in these early excavations. Nikolaos Gialouris resumed the excavations in 1960 for the Greek Archaeological Society.
A part of the ancient city was revealed (1965-1970) by the revenue office of pre-historic and classical archaeologies during the works for the irrigation system of the Pineios Dam.
The extensive archaeological site of ancient Elis comprises the ancient agora, the theatre, the residential sector, the cemeteries, the acropolis, and the unexcavated gymnasiums. A number of settlements or suburbs, each with its own cemetery, developed around the city. Only small sections of the city have been investigated so far, but these provide enough information to help us imagine how the city looked.
The agora remained largely unchanged until the very end, with some minor remodelling in the Roman period. Other early buildings, however, were replaced by new constructions particularly in the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. Both the early buildings, which were built of ashlar blocks in the ancient Greek manner, and the later ones were systematically looted for building material in Late Antiquity and later periods.
The theatre, a striking monument with a characteristic earthen cavea and a well-preserved stage building, occupied the north end of the agora. It enjoyed views of the river, which, in antiquity, ran very close by, along the city's north limits.
A bridge crossed the river near that point and a strong embankment protected the city against floods. The Bouleuterion and the city's two gymnasiums were most probably located near the theatre.
The city's religious and possible administrative centre occupied the agora's south end. Here, various buildings lie haphazardly within a relatively limited space. The built enclosure of a temple with a stepped porch and altar, several porticoes and ancillary rooms, a monumental two-roomed building of the Classical period and its later annex, and an incomplete rectangular building near the entrance to the agora.
This last building has been tentatively identified as the peristyle tholos dedicated to the worship of the Roman Emperors, which was already abandoned in Pausanias's time. The agora's interior space was partly lined by two large and one small portico, the latter built as a continuation of one of the large ones.
The city had densely populated residential blocks, wide streets, and several bathhouses. An impressive number of kilns was identified throughout the city. Two cemeteries were located at either end of the city, along the main road, and several small communities or suburbs developed along the same road. The acropolis occupied the top of a hill to the city's east.
Elis thrived in the Early Roman period and enjoyed numerous privileges because of its role in the organization of the Olympic Games. It was greatly influenced by Roman civilization and developed a multi-cultural identity due to the various ethnic groups, particularly Romans, living there.
Recent work for the promotion of the archaeological site of Elis includes the removal of undergrowth, tree planting, the creation of visitors' paths, the installation of signs with explanatory texts, and the conservation and restoration of its monuments.
Near the market existed a temple which was dedicated to the Roman kings, another temple dedicated to Aphrodite (Ourania - Pandemos), a precinct and a temple of Hades, a temple of Tyche (fortune), a temple and a statue of beardless Poseidon, a theater and a temple of Dionysus
In the citadel of Elis was the temple of Athena with an alectryon on her head, a work of Pheidias of gold and ivory. Elis was unwalled as being a sacred city of the Olympian Zeus. Only the citadel was fortified.
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