History of the Hippodrome of Constantinople

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Hippodrome of Constantinople

History and Architecture of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Istanbul

Sultanahmet, which had been the administrative center of the empires that reigned in Istanbul, hosts millions of visitors every year. Focusing on Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, visitors can overlook the Hippodrome. However, two of the oldest historical monuments of Istanbul, such as the Egyptian Obelisk and the Serpent Column, are located here.

In 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium. After six years of work by the imperial architects and engineers, the small Greek town Byzantium was rebuilt and turned into an imperial capital.

The most important buildings in the newly built city were the Great Palace, the Church of the Holy Apostles, the Forum of Constantine and the Hippodrome.

Capital of the Empire in the East: Constantinople

Imperial Capital of Byzantine Empire Constantinople

New Rome: Constantinople

In the picture above, we see that Hippodrome is the most prominent structure of old Istanbul. Immediately to the right is the Great Palace, where Emperors live, behind Hagia Sophia, and to the left is Forum Constantine, the city’s largest square.

Architecture of the Hippodrome of Constantinople

In the city of Byzantium there was a small Hippodrome built by the Roman emperor Septimus Severus, who conquered the city in the early 3rd century. When Constantine declared the city the capital, it was decided to make a more magnificent one. The famous Circus Maximus in Rome was taken as the model for this new hippodrome.

The Hippodrome was a U shaped racing track. Curval Tribune of the Hippodrome was called as Sphendone. Emperors lodge was called as Kathisma. Central axis with monuments and columns was named Spina.

On the orders of the Emperor, important historical monuments from the ancient centers of the Roman Empire were moved here. Emperor Constantine wanted to give legitimacy to the city that he would give his name.

Obelisk from Egypt and the Serpent Column from Greece are still standing today. Some of the other works of art that adorned the Hippodrome were stolen during the Sack of Constantinople (1204), while others were destroyed by earthquakes and fires.

Structure of a Roman Hippodrome > Ciscus Maximus

Hippodrome of Constantinople Architecture Plan

Hippodrome of Constantinople Architecture modeled Circus Maximus

Chariot Races of Blues and Greens

The Hippodrome was the main entertainment center of Constantinople, one of the largest cities of the Middle Ages, with a population of around 500,000. The ancient chariots drawn by four horses were racing to the death in the Hippodrome.

Hippodrome races, the most important sports competition of that period, were also watched by the city elites including the emperor. The Emperor had a lodge (Kathisma) that he could reach through the palace. From here he would watch the races and also listen to the voice of the public.

The chariot races were more than a sporting event, they had also a political meaning. The Hippodrome, the only place where the people and the emperor came together, was the place where discontent in society came to light.

There were two teams in the race track called Blues and Greens. However, the supporters of these teams were almost hostile to each other. The Blues were mostly favored by the wealthy community, while the Greens were supported by farmers, merchants and workers.

They also belonged to two different religious denominations, Orthodox and Monophysite, as well as socially different levels. This division was fueling hostility. A small spark was enough for the great uprisings to emerge.

There were moments when emperors could hardly save their lives because of the riots that started from the Hippodrome. Two of these rebellions emerged during the reign of Anastasius and Justinian, two of the greatest rulers of the Byzantine Empire. The Nika Revolt, the most important rebellion in the history of Constantinople, began here and spread throughout the city.

History of the Hippodrome of Constantinople

Chariot Races between Greens and Blues in Hippodrome

Four-horse chariots (quadrigae) races in Hippodrome

The word of Hippodrome originated from the Greek Lenguage: hippos (horse), anddromos (path). Horse racing and chariot racing were extremely popular in the Europe during Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods.

Hippodrome of Constantinople in Istanbul

Very little remains from the Ancient Hippodrome to the present day. It is still possible to see the hippodrome in the Sultanahmet area, which is the most touristic point of Istanbul.

The Hippodrome, adjacent to the Blue Mosque, is an open-air museum and has no entrance fee. The three historical monuments you will see while touring the Hippodrome are Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column and Walled Obelisk, respectively.

  • Obelisk of Theodosius from Egypt

The obelisks in Ancient Egypt were monuments erected in honor of the pharaohs. The Egyptian Obelisk, adorning the Hippodrome, was erected by Thutmose III in 1500 BC. Its main location was the Karnak Temple in Egypt. Obelisk was one of two monumental columns erected to symbolize the victories of Thutmose III, one of the warrior emperors of Ancient Egypt.

The obelisk was a monolithic granite column about 35 meters high. Next to it was another granite column of the same size. Twin obelisks were placed at the entrance to the Karnak Temple. On the obelisks, the lands of Pharaoh stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia were described.

It was a great project to bring the obelisk from Egypt to Constantinople. One of the largest ships in the Roman navy had to be commissioned. But somehow it would not reached its new place for 60 years. Obelisk remained in the Port of Alexandria for years, and only half a century later it was brought to Constantinople.

The ship, which brought the obelisk, finally reached Constantinople in 390, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius. Proclus, the governor of Constantinople at that time, erected the column to the hippodrome in honor of the emperor. That is why Obelisk is identified with Theodosius‘s name.

Obelisk of Theodosius in the Hippodrome

Hippodrome of Constantinople Photo

Obelisk Of Theodosius

Marble Base of the Obelisk of Theodisius

Of course, the transportation of the 35 meter long column from Egypt to Istanbul was not easy. The breaking of the column occurred in Alexandria according to some historians and in Constantinople according to others. As a result, a 20-meter top remains from the 35-meter column.

It was necessary to raise the Obelisk of Theodosius, which was short compared to other columns in the hippodrome. For this purpose, a marble base decorated with reliefs prepared by the Romans was placed under it.

Royal Family is Depicted on the Marble Base

Marble Base of the Obelisk of Theodosius

Roman Carvings on the Marble Base

  • Serpent Column from the Apollo Temple of Delphi

The second important work is the Serpentine Column brought from Delphi, the holy city of Ancient Greece. The Serpent Column was made during the Greco-Persian Wars, one of the most important battles of the Ancient Age. 31 Greek city-states united against the Persian invasion made this column to celebrate their victory. The most important feature of the column is that it was made of shields of Persian soldiers who were defeated.

Unfortunately, the snake heads, which were known to be in place until the late period of the Ottoman Empire, are no longer there. According to some sources, it was broken in the earthquake, while some sources report that it was the victim of vandalism. The jaw part of one of the snakes is exhibited in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Hippodrome of Constantinople Facts

Hippodrome in the Ottoman Era

Hippodrome in an old painting

Hippodrome was depicted on a painting in Ottoman Era. From left: Egyptian Obelisk, Serpent Column, Contantine Column. Picture taken from a history book written by historian Stefanos Yerasimos.

  • Constantine Column (Walled Obelisk)

The third important structure is the Column of Constantine whose construction date is unknown. The Column of Constantine was rebuilt in the 10th century and was named after the Emperor Constantine VII. The column, which was surrounded by bronze plates in its first period, was looted during the Sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade.

In addition, bronze statue of four horses adorning the entrance gate of the Hippodrome were also stolen during the Sack of Constantinople and taken to Venice. Bronze horses can still be seen at the St. Mark’s Square in Italy.

Hippodrome of Constantinople during Byzantine Era

Hippodrome of Constantinople Painting

Walled Obelisk

Hippodrome during the Ottoman Era

The name of the Hippodrome, which was in ruins when the Ottomans came, became known as Horse Square (At Meydani). It became an area where Ottoman sultans gave banquets and various entertainment. It is rumored that the janissary soldiers climbed the Column of Constantine to show their courage.

German Fountain in the Hippodrome of Istanbul

While touring the hippodrome, you will see a structure that was added to the square in the 20th century.

Kaiser Wilhelm II had visited Istanbul several times before the First World War. Allied Ottomans and Germans were making some gestures to each other.

The German Emperor built this magnificent fountain in Germany and sent it to Istanbul via trains. Fountain is the symbol of friendship between the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II and Kaiser Wilhelm.

There are magnificent mosaic decorations under the dome of the still active fountain. These mosaics, which also refer to the city’s Eastern Roman past, are in golden colour.

Picture of the German Fountain in the Hippodrome

German Fountain in Istanbul

German Fountain

Hippodrome Of Constantinople by Serhat Engul

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