In Sultan Ahmet Square a park in the centre of Istanbul, a city that straddles two continents, which has a 2000 year history and was once the capital of two of the most famous empires in history, lies the Hippodrome. Today the two great monuments of the Haghia Sophia and its neighbouring Blue Mosque now overshadow this ancient monument.
The Hippodrome was used as a race course for chariot and horse racing, it was a popular pastime in the Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine period. The most famous Roman circus previously being the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Above: The Serpent Column
The Roman Period
The monument has been attributed to the reign of Constantine, however it pre-dates his reign, the first hippodrome being built when the city was known as Byzantium. It was later expanded after Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and its walls.
It was a century later when in AD 324 the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great made two of the most world changing events in history, he moved his imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople, he also embraced christianity and would in time become the official Religion of the Roman Empire. He expanded the city, renovating the Hippodrome, it was a massive undertaking and when it was completed it was capable of holding 100,000 people .
The race track was U- shaped and also contained seats for the emperor, this was located at the eastern end of the track, and was accessible from the nearby Great Palace. There was also several monuments within the Hippodrome such as the Obelisk of Thutmose III an Egyptian obelisk which was already almost 2000 years old by this time, and the serpent column.
Above:The Obelisk of Thutmose III
The Byzantine Period
People often forget that the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476 was not the end of the Roman Empire. In fact the eastern empire continued for almost another 1000 years. Here the chariot and horse racing continued well into the Byzantine period, with politics intertwining with sport.
There were four teams that took part in these races, each one sponsored by a different political party within the Byzantine aristocracy. The Blues,the Greens, the Reds and the Whites. These last two were weakened until the predominant factions were the Blues and the Greens. The political rivals sometimes turned to full blown riots,as was the case in the so called Nika riot of AD 532 during the reign of Justinian when up to 30,000 people were killed. It was the Empress Theodora who took control of the situation and persuaded Justinian to not run from away, eventually Justinian’s did manage to calm the situation down, only after the first Haghia Sophia was burnt down.
However the outcome of this,was the construction of the greatest structure of Byzantine civilisation,the Haghia Sophia.
ABove: The obelisk in the Hippodrome
The Ottoman Period
In AD 1204 the armies of the Fourth Crusade breached Constantinople’s walls and sacked the city and even though the Byzantines managed to reconquer their city they never fully recovered. The Hippodrome had by this point fallen into a disuse by this point. Once the Turks conquered the city in AD 1453 they were not interested in horse racing or Byzantine culture and the monument gradually faded from memory.
Above: The obelisk with the Theodosian frieze
One of the monuments which was set up in the middle of the Hippodrome in the reign of Constantine included the Serpent Column. The column is almost 2,500 years old and was set up in Delphi, Greece to commemorate the Greek victory over the Persians.
When I visited Istanbul earlier in 2013, I was impressed by the city, but when I came to see this small bronze column I began to think about how much history was in this one column.The construction of this column in celebration of the heroic victory of the Greeks in some distant land in Greece… its removal to the Hippodrome, the sack of AD 1204 and the Ottoman conquest.
This Hippodrome has stood the test of time and is still here, how long it will stand though remains to be seen.
Author: Jeremy Hallatt