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Physical Description

Ancient Elis is the northwestern portion of the Peloponnese. In antiquity it was divided into three parts: Hollow Elis, or Elis proper, located in the north, which is watered by the Peneus river: Pistasis, on the Alpheus river in the center of the region, which included Olympia, and Triphylia in the south between the Alpheus and the Neda rivers. Elis faces west toward the Ionian Sea and the Island of Zakynthos.

Being in western Greece, Elis is privileged with generous rainfall. Thus the region is more heavily forested than other parts of Greece, and possesses better pasture-lands. Out of the entire western area, Elis alone has an extensive low-lying, swampy plain facing the sea which provides lush pasture land for horses, cattle and sheep. This plain is ideal for raising cereals. In the foothills of the modern region of Elis, the currant grape is grown, and in the highlands of Mount Erymanthus (2224 m) are groves of oak and pines. In antiquity, the region was famous for the sacred grove of Altis, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Olympic games. Elis was regarded as a holy land and its neutrality was respected from before the classical period to the end of the Peloponnesian War.

Ancient Kyllene served as the port of ancient Elis and it still serves as a modern port today. Due to its location on a small peninsula which is actually the furthest western projection of the Peloponnese, it proved a good trading point with Magna Graecia and the west. During the Peloponnesian War, Kyllene was a Spartan naval station. The ancient roads in the region were probably winding and narrow as they ran over the mountainous routes, and even the modern roads through the territory of Elis are very steep. Elis was a remote area, not easily accessible, but still it was frequently visited in antiquity due to the Sanctuary of Zeus and the Olympic games. These attractions contributed greatly to the prosperity of Olympia, and to the region of Elis as a whole.


In mythical times this tract of country was said to be divided into several districts, each occupied by a separate clan, of whom the Caucones were probably the most ancient. The whole district of Elis may have born the name of Cauconia once. During the Bronze Age the dialect of the region was Arcadian, and even after the Dorian invasion, the Arcadian dialect survived here. During Classical times Elis held considerable territory west of Arcadia. The ancient city of Elis was built on the banks of the Peneus river in c. 471 B.C. to replace Olympia as the political center of the region. The Eleans presided over the Olympic games, which began according to tradition in 776 B.C., but they did not have effective control over the games until the sixth century B.C.


Although Olympia is the focal point of the region of Elis, Chlemoutsi represents the Medieval capital of the region. This city was built in c. A.D. 1220-1223 with money confiscated from the Latin clergy. The castle Chlemoutsi commanded the height known to the ancients as Cape Chleonatas, but it was destroyed during the German occupation in the 1940's.

Much of the remains of the ancient architecture and sculpture and finds from the German excavations at Olympia are now in the museum near the sanctuary.

Curtis Runnels

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