You know Istanbul also known as Constantinople. But what do you know about its hippodromes? In this guide, we will share some information about them.
The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a circus that was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square) with only a few fragments of the original structure surviving. It is sometimes also called Atmeydanı (Horse Square) in Turkish.
The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, path or way. This used to be the place where chariots and horses were racing during the Byzantian era and later during the Ottoman era Cirit (an ancient Turkish game played with horses) was played in this area. There are 4 interesting spots to check-in Hippodrome.
The first one is the German Fountain with beautiful details. The second one is the obelisk from Egypt. The third one is the Serpents Column and the last one is Walled Obelisk. While visiting the main attractions such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque, you can give a break to see the Hippodrome.
Now a part of Sultanahmet Square, the Hippodrome was once one of the largest tracks in the ancient world – second only to the Circus Maximus in Rome. It is now a landscaped park following the road from Sultanahmet Mosque to Hagia Sophia. Its construction started in 203 AD.
The Hippodrome is now an open-air museum displaying relics of ancient and not so ancient times. The oldest is the Egyptian Obelisk from the 15th century BC and brought from Egypt by the then Emperor Theodosius I. It is made from pink granite and was originally 32.5 meters high. It was reduced to 20 meters for transportation and now sits on a marble plinth.
The plinth was constructed in 389 AD and depicts scenes of the activities of the Hippodrome. The column of Constantine dates from the 10th century and its 32-meter height was covered with decorated copper and brass. This was removed during the invasion of the 13th century and used to make coins.
The latest structure in the Hippodrome is the Kaiser Wilhelm or German Fountain. It was a gift from the Kaiser in 1898 as he was impressed by the hospitality, he received upon his second visit to Turkey.
When Roman Emperor Septimius Severus conquered ancient Constantinople named Byzantion in 203 CE, he named the city as Augusta Antonina and built many structures. Hippodrome was one of the significant structures built by Severus. However, the first Hippodrome was a small one. In 330 CE, Constantine I declared the city as the capital of the Byzantine Empire and named it Constantinople, meaning Constantine’s city in Greek.
One of the first things that Constantine I rebuilt was the Hippodrome. He enlarged the hippodrome and connected it to the Great Palace of Constantinople that today lies underneath the Blue Mosque. Today the foundations of the Great Palace of Constantinople can be seen at the Museum of the Great Palace Mosaics.
What landmarks to see at Hippodrome Square?
The capacity of the hippodrome was approximately 40,000 and it was free and open to male members of the community. At least eight different games could be held throughout the day and it was also used as a symbol of power for the empire.
The hippodrome was decorated with monuments that were brought in from across the empire including the Serpent Column (Yılanlı Sütun) from Delphi and Obelisk of Thutmosis III (Obelisk of Theodosius) from Egypt. With these landmarks and monuments -brought from all around the world- the Byzantine Empire was proudly showing its strength and thousands of kilometers long territory ruled by them.
Hippodrome during the Ottoman era
Hippodrome was also used by the Ottomans as well and they named it At Meydanı (Horse Square), yet they simply used it as a square. Constructions of İbrahim Paşa Palace (now housing Turkish and Islamic Art Museum) in the 16th century and Blue Mosque in the 17th century damaged the hippodrome.
Subsequently, mid-eighteenth century onwards it was abandoned and destroyed. Today, the area is known as Sultanahmet Square and it follows the ground plan and dimensions of the hippodrome.
Originally the arena consisted of two levels of galleries, a central spine, starting boxes and the semicircular southern end known as the Sphendone, parts of which still stand.
The galleries that once topped this stone structure were damaged during the Fourth Crusade and ended up being dismantled in the Ottoman period; many of the original columns were used in the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque.
The Hippodrome was the center of Byzantium’s life for 1000 years and of Ottoman life for another 400 years and has been the scene of countless political dramas. In Byzantine times, the rival chariot teams of ‘Greens’ and ‘Blues’ had separate sectarian connections.
Support for a team was akin to membership of a political party, and a team victory had important effects on policy. Occasionally, Greens and Blues joined forces against the emperor, as was the case in AD 532 when a chariot race was disturbed by protests against Justinian’s high tax regime.
This escalated into the Nika riots (so-called after the protesters’ cry of Nika!, or Victory!), which led to tens of thousands of protesters being massacred in the Hippodrome by imperial forces. Not surprisingly, chariot races were banned for some time afterward.
Ottoman sultans also kept an eye on activities in the Hippodrome. If things were going badly in the empire, a surly crowd gathering here could signal the start of a disturbance, then a riot, then a revolution.
In 1826 the slaughter of the corrupt janissary corps (the sultan’s bodyguards) was carried out here by the reformer Sultan Mahmut II. In 1909 there were riots here that caused the downfall of Abdül Hamit II.
Despite the ever-present threat of the Hippodrome being the scene of their downfall, emperors and sultans sought to outdo one another in beautifying it and adorned the center with statues from the far reaches of the empire. Unfortunately, many priceless statues carved by ancient masters have disappeared from their original homes here.
Chief among those responsible for such thefts were the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who invaded Constantinople, a Christian ally city, in 1204.
Near the northern end of the Hippodrome, the little gazebo with beautiful stonework is known as Kaiser Wilhelm’s Fountain. The German emperor paid a state visit to Sultan Abdül Hamit II in 1898 and presented this fountain to the sultan and his people as a token of friendship in 1901.
The monograms on the dome’s interior feature Abdül Hamit’s tuğra (calligraphic signature) and the first letter of Wilhelm’s name, representing their political union.
The immaculately preserved pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius in the center was carved in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III (r 1549–1503 BC) and erected in the Amon-Re temple at Karnak.
Theodosius the Great (r 379–95) had it brought from Egypt to Constantinople in AD 390. On the marble podium below the obelisk, look for the carvings of Theodosius, his wife, his sons, state officials and bodyguards watching the chariot-race action from the kathisma (imperial box).
South of the obelisk is a strange column coming up out of a hole in the ground. Known as the Spiral Column, it was once much taller and was topped by three serpents’ heads.
Originally cast to commemorate a victory of the Hellenic confederation over the Persians in the battle of Plataea, it stood in front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Greece) from 478 BC until Constantine the Great had it brought to his new capital city around AD 330.
Though badly damaged in Byzantine times, the serpents’ heads survived until the early 18th century. Now all that remains of them is one upper jaw, which was discovered in the basement of Aya Sofya and is housed in the İstanbul Archaeology Museums.
After sacking Aya Sofya in 1204, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade tore all the plates from the Rough-Stone Obelisk, at the Hippodrome’s southern end, in the mistaken belief that they were solid gold (in fact, they were gold-covered bronze).
The Crusaders also stole the famous Triumphal Quadriga (team of four horses cast in bronze) and placed it atop the main door of Venice’s Basilica di San Marco; replicas are now located there, as the originals were moved into the basilica for safekeeping.
Amazing facts about the Hippodrome of Constantinople
• In 390 CE, Byzantine emperor Theodosius I brought the Obelisk of Thutmosis III from Karnak (Southern Egypt) to Constantinople, erected it inside the hippodrome and named it “Obelisk of Theodosius” (Dikilitaş in Turkish). It is one of the twenty-nine Egyptian obelisks in the world. Despite its approx. 3500 years old age, the obelisk is in very good condition.
• During the Nika Riots in 532 CE, Byzantine emperor Justinian I ordered the killing of 30,000 people locked in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
• During the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the center of the Constantinopolitans’ everyday life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and there were four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Veneto), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi).
• Good charioteers were as important as public heroes during the Byzantine period. Legendary charioteer Porphyrios was a very successful charioteer, who raced for both Blues and Greens. According to the primary sources, there were several statues of Charioteer Porphyrios around the hippodrome; unfortunately, none of these statues are surviving but the bases of two statues – including an inscription praising Charioteer Porphyrios – are exhibited at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
• During the Ottoman period in 1720, a fifteen-days long circumcision ceremony of the sons of Ahmet III took place in the hippodrome and Surname-i Vehbi (Ottoman miniature painting book describing the circumcision ceremony of the sons of Ahmet III) the hippodrome is shown with the seats and monuments still intact.
To raise the image of his new capital, Constantine and his successors, especially Theodosius the Great, brought works of art from all over the empire to adorn it.
The monuments were set up in the middle of the Hippodrome, the spine. Among these was the Tripod of Plataea, now known as the Serpent Column, cast to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC.
Constantine ordered the Tripod to be moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and set in the middle of the Hippodrome. The top was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads, although it appears that this was never brought to Constantinople. The serpent heads and top third of the column were destroyed in 1700.
Parts of the heads were recovered and are displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. All that remains of the Delphi Tripod today is the base, known as the “Serpentine Column”.
Obelisk of Thutmose III
Another emperor to adorn the Hippodrome was Theodosius the Great, who in 390 brought an obelisk from Egypt and erected it inside the racing track.
Carved from pink granite, it was originally erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Thutmose III in about 1490 BC. Theodosius had the obelisk cut into three pieces and brought to Constantinople.
The top section survives, and it stands today where Theodosius placed it, on a marble pedestal. The obelisk has survived nearly 3,500 years in astonishingly good condition.
In the 10th century, the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus built another obelisk at the other end of the Hippodrome. It was originally covered with gilded bronze plaques, but they were sacked by Latin troops in the Fourth Crusade. The stone core of this monument also survives, known as the Walled Obelisk.
Statues of Porphyrios
Seven statues were erected on the Spina of the Hippodrome in honor of Porphyrios, a legendary charioteer of the early 6th century who in his time raced for the two parties which were called “Greens” and “Blues”. None of these statues have survived. The bases of two of them have survived and are displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
How to get to the Hippodrome?
The easiest way to get the Hippodrome is to take a tram to Sultanahmet, from where is it is a two-minute walk. From Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, it’s only two minutes walking distance.
What else nearby?
Located in Sultanahmet -the heart of Istanbul’s historical peninsula- the Hippodrome of Constantinople is close to many other essential monuments and museums including Blue Mosque, Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, Hagia Sophia, Underground Cistern, and Topkapi Palace.
Are there any hotels close to the Hippodrome?
Located in the most popular tourist area, their many accommodation options close by to suit all budgets. Some of the nicest hotels in the area are the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, Ibrahim Pasha Hotel and Armada Sultanahmet Old City.
The Byzantine emperors loved nothing more than an afternoon at the chariot races, and this rectangular arena alongside Sultanahmet Park was their venue of choice. In its heyday, it was decorated by obelisks and statues, some of which remain in place today. Re-landscaped in more recent years, it is one of the city’s most popular meeting places and promenades.
Tickets & tours
- Byzantine Hippodrome $9.13
- Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar Tour $38
- Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace Tour $65