By Vassilis Triandafyllou
ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (Reuters) - Firefighters battled to save ancient Olympia on Sunday as Greece's worst forest fires in decades ravaged hills around the historic site and the death toll rose to 56.
Thick black smoke billowed above the ancient ruins as dense pine and cypress woods burned around the site of the first Olympic Games and fire brigades evacuated nearby villages on Greece's southern Peloponnese peninsula.
"The fire reached the hill overlooking ancient Olympia but was stopped just before entering the archaeological site," said a fire brigade spokesman. "Six planes, two helicopters, 15 fire engines and 45 firemen participated in the effort."
The fires scorched the yard of the museum, housing a number of famous classical sculptures such as Hermes by Praxiteles and other finds from the ruins of the temples and sports facilities, Greek television said.
Ancient Olympia boasts the ruins of the stadium and pagan temples that hosted the Olympics for centuries from 776 BC and is the site of an Olympic flame ceremony every two years.
"Here it is, the contrast: ancient Greece gave the world civilisation and modern Greece gives it destruction," a resident of ancient Olympia told Alter TV station.
Since Friday, towering walls of flame have cut a swathe of destruction through the Peloponnese and swept across other regions, prompting Greece to declare a nationwide state of emergency on Saturday.
Firefighters and planes from other European Union countries have joined the battle.
The fires have covered Athens in white ash, forced thousands to flee their villages and burned about 500 homes and thousands of hectares of forest and farmland.
DEATH TOLL RISES
The death toll rose to 56, including a mother clutching her children, and an elderly woman found burnt just outside ancient Olympia.
© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.