Ancient Olympics’ Birthplace Saved as Fires Rage Across Southern Europe

A massive heatwave sparked blazes along the Mediterranean, threatening cultural heritage sites and forcing mass evacuations

A view of the Parthenon in the distance on a hilltop, with the sun low in the sky behind a haze of smoke
The Parthenon, the temple that sits atop Athens' Acropolis, seen surrounded by smoke on August 4 Photo by Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

Dozens of devastating forest fires sparked by strong winds and record-high temperatures are burning along the Mediterranean. The blazes have razed parts of southern Greece and Italy and wreaked havoc in Turkey, where tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate and at least eight people have died, report Umit Bektas and Mehmet Emin Caliskan for Reuters.

In addition to reckoning with the fires’ human and environmental toll, officials in southern Europe are fighting to save some of the world’s most cherished cultural heritage sites, including the Acropolis of Athens and the ruins of Olympia.

On Thursday, the third straight day of blazes burning in Greece, firefighters evacuated more than a dozen villages on the island of Evia, near Athens, according to Angeliki Koutantou and Lefteris Papadimas of Reuters. In Athens itself, residents faced the hottest week on record since 1987, reports Niki Kitsantonis for the New York Times.

Smoke from the fires overshadowed much of the region this week, with parts of Greece experiencing record-breaking temperatures of 116 degrees Fahrenheit, notes Kate Brown for Artnet News.

The heat forced the Acropolis of Athens to close from noon to 5 p.m. daily, in accordance with government guidance barring people who work outside—such as security guards—from working during the hottest hours of the day, reports Gareth Harris for the Art Newspaper. The ancient Greek citadel is home to one of the most famous collections of ancient architecture in the world, including the Parthenon, which was built in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. to honor the goddess Athena, per Encyclopedia Britannica.

As fires broke out in Greece’s southern Peloponnese mountains, flames appeared poised to overtake Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games. On Wednesday, around 100 firefighters, two planes and three helicopters worked to protect the archaeological site, reports Agence France-Press (AFP). Army personnel dug “fire lines,” or trenches with gaps in vegetation meant to slow fires’ progress, to protect the ancient gathering place, write Kitsantonis and Megan Specia for the New York Times.

“Everything that can be done to protect from the flames the museum and the archaeological site, where the Olympic games started, has been done,” said Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni on Wednesday evening, per AFP.

The neighboring town of Olympia and seven other villages were also evacuated, reports the Associated Press (AP), and by Thursday, the archaeological site had been declared saved from the fires.

“Our forces fought an all-night battle … to keep the archaeological site and the town intact,” Greece’s citizens’ protection minister, Mihalis Chrisohoidis, told state television yesterday, per Reuters.

The ancient Olympic Games took place at a sprawling complex outside the town of Olympia from 776 B.C.E. to 393 C.E., according to the Penn Museum. Held each year to honor the Greek god Zeus, the festival included competitions such as running, jumping, discus throwing and wrestling. Unlike the modern Olympics, the ancient events lasted just a few days, notes the International Olympics Committee (IOC).