Byzantine Hippodrome, Istanbul
Just south of the Blue Mosque, there is an oval-shaped road. This was the site of the Hippodrome, where 100,000 spectators watched chariot races. At its center, three monuments offer clues as to the prominence of this stadium.
The Constantine Column, 105 feet in height, was erected by Constantine. It had been covered with bronze plates, but those were removed in 1204 by Venetians who sacked the city. Standing 55 feet high, the 3,500-year-old Obelisk of Theodosius was brought to Constantinople in 390 A.D. from the Temple of Karnak in Egypt. In addition to these two monuments, there is the Serpentine Column, commemorating the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 B.C. It was removed from Delphi during Constantine’s reign. Unfortunately, the snake heads have been detached, one of which can be found in the Istanbul Archeological Museum.
The southern edge of the stadium, which the locals call the Sfendon wall, is the only remaining part of the Hippodrome. To find it, head along the first road southeast of the Constantine Column and look for an ancient wall to your right.
The Hippodrome is in the old part of Istanbul. The name has change to Sultanahmet square district. The district is rich in history and architecture. There are many well known historical sights. During Constantine reigned the Hippodrome was used for political, social life and sporting event. Citizens of Rome can raised their voice of discontentment and quite often it leads to riots and killing fields. Thousand of spectators watched chariot races and gladiators in combat. In the Hippodrome there are three well known monuments. See the photos of the three monuments.
The first monument is the 3500 year old Obelisk of Theodosius the First was originally from the Temple of Karnak in ancient Egypt. It was erected at the current sight by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius the First in 390 AD. It is Istanbul oldest monument.
The second monument is the roughly built obelisk known as Orme Sutun was originally covered with bronze plaques. The Venetians in 1204 during the 4th crusade sacked and looted the city.
The third monument is the sculpture of the three headed serpent spiral bronze bought from Delphi in Greece to commemorate the Greek victory in 479 B.C. The snake heads is missing.
In 324 AD, Roman emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople, & organized a major renovation of the city, including the Hippodrome, where chariot races took place. The chariot races held here were one of the city's biggest social events, & the people of Constantinople loyally supported one team or another. So loyal was the following that it often led to disputes, even riots! (Ummm, can you say present-day soccer fans?!) The Nika Riots in 532 AD left half of the city destroyed & 30,000 people dead. When Constantinople was sacked in 1204 during the 4th Crusade, the Hippodrome was left in ruins. It was never rebuilt, & after the Ottomans took control of the city in 1453, most of it was either used for new structures, or was simply covered up with new structures being built on top.
The present-day Sultanahmet area is where the Hippodrome was located, & there is almost nothing left of the stadium itself. Where the center of the track once was, called the Spina, there are 3 monuments still standing, each having an interesting tale themselves -
The Tripod of Plataea, known as the Serpentine Column, a monument celebrating Greek victory over Persia in the 5th cent. BC, originally stood at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece. Constantine ordered it to be moved from Delphi to the Spina of the Hippodrome. Only the base of it remains.
The Obelisk of Theodosius originally stood in Luxor, Egypt at the Temple of Karnak, dating back to the reign of Tuthmosis III around 1500 BC. The emperor Theodosius had it cut into 3 pieces & brought back to Constantinople in 390 AD, where he erected only the top portion.
The Walled Obelisk, or Column of Constantine VII, was erected by emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the 10th cent. AD. It had been covered in bronze plates, but they were taken by the crusaders.
Even though the Hippodrome itself no longer stands, it is quite interesting to stand next to these monuments, & just imagine a stadium filled with 100,000 screaming fans! Amazing!
THE "Hippodrome" also known as "The Horse Square" in the Ottoman period, is located near the Blue Mosque.
During the Byzantine period, chariot races were held here. The square was the most central region in that period, where important activities were held such as various entertainments, coronation ceremonies and victory parades.
It was a huge area, with a width of 117 metres, and length of 480 meters, and could hold a capacity of 100 thousand people.
Also located here, are another three important monuments............
THE EGYPTIAN OBELISK........ 1500BC, Which Constantine transported from Luxor, Egypt.
THE SERPENTINE COLUMN.....479BC, From the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece.
THE COLUMN OF CONSTANTINE VII PORPHRYOGENITUS........Is of unknown date and was named after the Emperor who had it restored in the 10th century.
ALL ARE FREE TO WANDER AROUND.
THE STADIUM once had four great bronze Horses, but these were looted by the crusaders in 1204, and now are in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, so, at least they weren't lost for good in history!
Somehow I had a very different picture in my mind of what a “hippodrome” should look like. If chariot racing ever took place in the hippodrome in Istanbul, near the Blue Mosque, there is very little evidence of that today. Now it’s a park with a few grassy squares and a series of columns jutting up here and there.
One of them is Theodosius’ s obelisk, a towering column that gets narrower toward the tip (“obelisk” is a diminutive of the Greek word for needle). There are 30 ancient obelisks around the world, although there are also modern examples, like the Washington Monument. The obelisk in Istanbul originally stood in front of the Temple of Luxor in Egypt, before being dismantled and dragged to Rome and then Constantinople (as Istanbul was once called). That it arrived in one piece is a miracle. Or maybe it didn’t, because the base is gone, and it sits on a marble pedestal.
The obelisk looked very white against the blue sky on the day I was there. The hieroglyphics that cover its four sides are still crisp and clear, seemingly untouched by the years. What intrigued me most as I walked around the monument was the carved owl peering down at me. Wherever I went its eyes seemed to follow me.
The Serpentine Column is one of the longest surviving relics of Greek antiquity, dating to 479BC. It honored Apollo for his aid in defeating the Persian invaders of Xerxes I at the battle of Plataea which effectively ended Persia's campaign to subjugate the Greek city-states. It stood originally in front of the temple of Apollo in Delphi, forever intended to recall the support of the Delphi oracle for the Persian invaders.
As originally constructed, the memorial was eighteen feet high composed of three intertwined snakes. The bronze bodies were etched with the names of the city states which contributed money and men to the war, in descending order of the size of their contributions. The heads of the snakes supported a golden bowl.
Today only 15 feet remain. A golden tripod lasted just a century, melted down to fund a war between the city states. When the bowl disappeared is uncertain - but most authorities suggest it was stolen during the desecration of the city by the Fourth Crusade. The snake heads were next to go - Ottomans likened snakes to the devil and dismantled them. One source suggests the heads were knocked off by a drunken Polish ambassador in 1702 while other say they just fell off one day. One of the three heads currently resides in the Istanbul Archaeologic Museum. Only the column remains, excavated in the 19th century. Note how far below current ground level the column extends, to the level of the original spina.
The Column of Constantine is often attributed to the 10th Century Emperor Constantine VII, but is now believed to be the oldest structure existing built for the Hippodrome. The location is near one end of the modern square but actually is at the central point of the original stadium. It is almost 100 feet high topped with a globe and made of natural stone. It was covered with bronze plates embossed with images of Emperor Basilius the Macedonian and his wartime victories. in the late 800's. Constantine VII may have repaired these plates. The plates were looted by the Fourth Crusade to make coins leaving exposed the stone.
The newest feature at the Hippodrome site was a gift marking the second visit of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm to Turkey and Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1898. It was constructed in parts in Germany and shipped to Turkey for assembly and features an octagonal dome covered in mosaics supported by eight marble columns. It occupies the approximate site of the Byzantine Emperor's seats. The original inauguration date was set for the 25th anniversary of Abdulhamid's ascendancy but construction delays deferred the date to 27 Jan 1901, the Kaiser's birthday.
The visits of Kaiser Wilhelm were of great political importance to Germany. Not only did the Kaiser gain approval for a German railroad through Turkey to Persia allowing for transport of goods for business as well as military forces. The impoverished Ottoman Empire had no funds for this project. Germany also won rights to search for oil within the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps most important from a historical viewpoint is the alliance of the two nations which lasted through WWI.
Modern day Sultan Ahmet Square, also known as Horse Square, is a grassy rectangle adjacent the Blue Mosque featuring one recent and three ancient relics of the Hippodrome (Gr - horse way). For centuries it was the social, political, and sporting center of life in the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople. Chariot and horse races, gladiator contests, and other sporting events were favored pastimes of the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines with the original track built in 203 AD by the emperor Septimius Severus. In 324, Constantine the Great moved the seat of the Roman Empire Government to the city that bore his name. One of his lasting structural legacies is the enlargement and redecoration of the racetrack. Most of the racetrack remains unexcavated below ground - note how far below ground level the enclosures for the relics extend. The southwestern wall, which lies far beyond the square, has been more fully uncovered and gives an impression of the massive size of this structure. Image 1 shows the square against a background of the Hagia Sophia. At 130 x 430 yds, its capacity has been estimated at anywhere between 50000 and 100000 spectators. Images 3 and 4 depict the walls of the original Hippodrome, located at some distance from what is called the Hippodrome today for tourists, and give an idea of how dominating and massive a structure the stadium must have been.
The featured relics are in a vertical array at the site of the spina or center of the track around which the races were conducted. The paved roadways filled with tour busses are at the approximate site of the track itself, which was then surrounded by a high set of spectator stands with storerooms, stables, chariot garages, and rooms for the contestants. The seats were accessed by many doorways leading to colonnaded galleries. Most of the statues and monuments have been removed to museums, including the quadriga at St Mark's in Venice looted by the Crusaders in 1204. Bronze statues of gods, politicians, emperors, famous horses and charioteers have all been lost to time.
After the sack of 1204, Constantinople never regained its importance as a world class city and the Hippodrome gradually deteriorated. The Ottomans had no use for chariot races. The square was used for occasional royal feasts such as weddings and circumcisions of the Sultan's sons but the original structures became lost over time through benign neglect. There are many objects from the Hippodrome in museums around the world, but all that remain at the original site are the three monuments from the spina and the excavated southwestern stadium.
The oldest monument in the Sultan Ahmet Square is the Obelisk of Thutmose III located centrally in the former spina directly in front of the imperial box (kathisma). The obelisk was about 2000 years old, created to honor a military victory at the Euphrates River in 1450BC by Thutmose III and placed at the great temple of Karnak. Emperor Constantinius III had two of the Karnak obelisks removed to Alexandria in 357 AD. The second is the Lateran Obelisk is the Circus Maximus of Rome. The obelisk bound for Constantinople took considerably longer to arrive, and in transit the lower ten meters were broken off and lost, leaving a twenty foot monument of pink granite. Theodosius I finally placed it in 390AD, set on a marble pedestal with reliefs and Greek and Roman inscriptions celebrating Theodosius and his family.
The column itself has four sides with central inscriptions about Thutmose III. The four sides of the marble base have an assorment of reliefs----
Image 2 - Theodosius and his family and retainers. Seated with him under the central portico are his two sons Arcadius and Honorius between whom the Roman Empire would be divided into East and West on his death.
Image 5 - Theodosius receiving the ambassadors of the defeated barbarians.
Image 3 - the upper level depicts the erection of the obelisk, which took over a month. On the lower level, a chariot race.
THE NIKA REVOLT - the Hippodrome was the absolute center of Constantinople. Sport, culture, politics, business - the stadium was the epicenter of Byzantine life. The two major political factions sponsored the two competing teams for chariot races and sporting events and even were named after the colors worn by their charioteers. The Greens represented the less wealthy and more politically and religiously liberal, while the Blues represented the more conservative and wealthy faction. They ( men only ) occupied the two long axes of the stadium with the emperor in his private enclosure in between. Frequently, sports or political disagreements led to unrest, squabbles, and outright battles between the two sides. In 1532, during another typical melee, Emperor Justinian arrested and executed the ringleaders from both sides. The Blues and Greens united in the Nika Revolt ( Nika meaning victory, as in the modern day sports company ). Their revolt destroyed much of the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia Church, and other major buildings. Justinian prepared to run, but the Empress Theodora ordered her general Belisarius to use mercenaries to put down the revolt. 30000 men were trapped inside the stadium and methodically slaughtered to the last. Rebuilding by Justinian led to many of the sites we visit today.
For a century the Hippodrome was the centre of the political and commerical life of the Byzantine Empire. The sight was originally the location of chariot races between the "Blues" and the "Greens". Although nothing remains of it today, there was a huge 100,000 seat stadium here were the races took place. The spectators were broken up into different factions, they being the "Reds", "Whites", the "Blues" and the "Greens". The latter two groups would eventually become politicalized and would often riot in the Hippodrome.
Besides the stadium, the Hippodrome was adorned with many decorative monuments, several of which still stand today. First and foremost of these is the Obelisk of Tutmosis III. This is a obelisk, dating from 1450 B.C., was placed here in 390 A.D. Amazingly only one third of the original monument made it to this spot, the rest being lost in transport from its first home at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt.
The obelisk is covered with hieroglyphics and sits on top of a pedestal built by the Emperor Theodosius. The features of the pedestal are now eroded but the condition of the obelisk is almost as good as new.
Other monuments in the Hippodrome include the Fountain of Wilhelm II (Alman Çesmesi) and the Serpentine Column. The Hippodrome fell to ruin when the city was captured by Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade. Today the Hippodrome is essentially a park were families tend to relax and drink tea at nearby cafes.
The Hippodrome was the first of Istanbul's attraction that I visited. This was of course because I stayed virtually across the street from it. This was a good thing because the place is usually full of tourists and touts. I was able to visit it early in the morning before the hordes showed up.
Towards the western end of the Hippodrome is this impressive obelisk which was brought from Egypt by the then Byzantine emperor, Theodosius, in AD 390. The beautifully carved monument was originally erected in Heliopolis which is in present-day Cairo according to the well-preserved hieroglyphs. The obelisk sits rather precariously, at least to the casual observer) on top of a marble pedestal that depicts scenes in the life of Theodosius. These badly weathered scenes stand in marked contract to the hieroglyphs of the obelisk. It's great condition, considering it is more than 3400 years old, is quite amazing and mind-boggling really.
Just west of the Blue Mosque, so close that you may as well see these.
Back in the day, first with the Byzantines and then with the Ottomans this was the scene where political uneasiness fermented into uprisings.
Now several monuments inhabit the spot that is now just a tourist attraction.
In the foreground is the spiral shaped Snake Column which was originally much taller. It originally stood in the town of Delphi to commemerate the victory over the Persians by the Hellenic Confederation from 478 BC until about 330 AD, when Constatine the Great had it moved here.
In the background is the Obelisk of Theodosius which was originally carved from Granite and erected in Egypt in around 1500 BC. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius had it transported to Constaninople in 390 AD.
Notice that the taller Obelisk was moved here only 60 years after the Spiral.
We call that one-upmanship.
This odd monument rising up out of a fenced-off hole in the ground has obviously seen better days. Another example of Byzantine pillaging, the column was constructed to commemorate a Hellinic victory over the Persians if the 5th century B.C. Constantine had it brought to Constantinople from Delphi around 330 A.D. The column was at one time much taller and was topped by three serpent heads which were knocked off sometime in the 18th century. One of the heads is on display in the Istanbul Archeological Museum.
Right around the turn of the 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was establishing a relationship with the Turkish government. This marble fountain was a token of friendship from the Kaiser to Abdul Hamit II and presented in 1901. It has some nice stonework around the exterior and pretty ornamental calligraphy on the underside of the bronze dome.
There is a wall in Sultan Ahmet which many tourists don't know. It is the last rest of Hippodrome reached to our time. It is called "Sfendon Wall". Emperor Septimus Severus began to build the Hipodrome in Byzans in AC 200 according to the muster of Roman Circus Naximus. Constantine the 1st enlarged the building. Hipo had the capacity of 30-40000. The semi rounded edge of the Hipo was called "Sfendon"