Olympia is located 10km inland in the territory of Elis in the northwestern Peloponnese, just near the confluence of Alpheios with the river Kladeos. Peloponnese, where Olympia lies, was considered to be the island of Pelops, the mythical figure whose life was traditionally linked to the site of Olympia.

Near the point where the two rivers meet, there rises a low hill covered with pines. This bears the name of Kronos, the father of Zeus, and surrounds the flat area of the shrine, the name of which was "Altis", meaning grove (alsos) in the Elian dialect.

The ancient writers tell us that Altis used to be shaded with olive-trees. Greeks honored Zeus and other deities at altars located in the Altis. The cults of Kronos, Rhea, Gaia, Eileithyia, Themis and Idaian Herakles were also worshiped at Olympia since the earlier times. From the sixth century and on, the Altis was adorned with temples, elaborate shrines, and statues. The Altis was the center of all religious activities during the Olympic festival.

The site of Olympia developed from a local cult center to a Panhellenic sanctuary throughout the course of the centuries.

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