Obelisk of Theodosius in the Hippodrome

Hippodrome of Constantinople was the place where the people of Istanbul had fun during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Chariot races between Blue and Green teams would cause great excitement. At the heart of the Hippodrome was an Obelisk brought from Ancient Egypt. In this article, I would like to share information about the history of the Obelisk of Theodosius.

In order to properly tell the story of the Obelisk of Theodosius, we will have to go back to the years when Istanbul was the second capital of the Roman Empire. When Emperor Constantine opened Constantinople with a ceremony in 330, the Hippodrome was just built.

Emperor Constantine the Great

Emperor Constantine, who ruled the Roman Empire between 306 and 337, made decisions that would change the course of history during his reign. Rome’s struggle with the Germanic Peoples in Northern Europe and the Sassanid Empire in the East had been going on for many years. For this reason, emperors were staying in cities such as Sirmium, Nicomedia and Antioch before or after military expeditions. Rome, the ancient capital, had now lost its strategic importance.

Constantine was victorious from the civil wars at the end of the Tetrarchy. Constantine, a great reformist, decided to change both the religion and the capital of the state. For this purpose, he chose Byzantium, which had a bright future with its strategic location. Byzantium, a small city, was rebuilt between 324 and 330. It was called “New Rome” because it was built on 7 hills like Rome. Later on, it would be called Constantinople, which means the city of Constantine.

Iconic Buildings of New Rome

The most important buildings of the new capital were the Great Palace, Hippodrome, Forum of Constantine and the Church of the Holy Apostles, dedicated to the disciples of Jesus. The Great Palace, where the Emperors lived, and Hippodrome, the biggest event center of the city, were built side by side. The imperial lodge named Kathisma in the Hippodrome was connected to the Great Palace by a corridor. Thus, the emperors took their place among the audience on the days of the races.

The races at the Hippodrome were an important political tool for the emperors. Races and festivals during the period of an emperor would increase his public reputation. Emperor Constantine paid great attention to the Hippodrome in the city he had just built. For this purpose, Hippodrome of Constantinople was built to compete with Circus Maximus in Rome.

It was a tradition to place obelisks brought from Ancient Egypt to the most important cities in the Roman Empire. These magnificent obelisks, resembling a pyramid with their shape, stood out as a symbol of power. They were also representatives of the ancient times that had come to an end.

Constantine asked for an obelisk to be brought from the Karnak Temple in Egypt. However, this would take too long. For this reason, Walled Obelisk, also known as the Column of Constantine, was erected in the middle of the Hippodrome. This column, consisting of cut stones placed on top of each other, was covered with bronze plates. It had a shining image like gold.

Column of Theodosius and Walled Obelisk
Hippodrome of Constantinople

The Walled Column, which appears to the far right of the painting, was erected before the arrival of the Egyptian Obelisk. The obelisk was brought from Egypt 60 years after it was originally planned. As can be seen in the picture, it was placed next to the Walled Column.

History of the Obelisk of Theodosius

The history of the Obelisk of Theodosius dates back to Ancient 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. However, Proclus (the governor of the city), who was responsible for the transfer of obelisk to Hippodrome, failed in his post. Egyptian Obelisk broke while moving from the port to Hippodrome. The 20-meter-long upper part of the Obelisk was erected next to the Walled Column in Hippodrome. The 15-meter bottom part was placed on the square in the port.

The obelisk, which separated from the 15-meter base, was shortened. It was rather short compared to the Walled Column. For this reason, a marble base prepared by Roman sculptors was placed under the Obelisk. On this base, Roman emperor Theodosius and his sons were depicted watching the races.

Obelisk of Theodosius in the Hippodrome

Roman Hippodrome in Istanbul
Obelisk of Theodosius

Hieroglyphs on the Obelisk of Theodosius

The Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Obelisk of Theodosius tell us the story of a warrior king. Let’s go into a little detail about the achievements of the pharaoh, who went on military campaigns outside of ancient Egypt.

The Warrior King: Thutmose III

At the top of the Obelisk, Thutmose III is depicted kneeling before Amun, the most powerful god of Ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphs, engraved all over the obelisk, describe how Thutmose was the lord of the Ancient World, with the help of the mighty gods Amun and Horus. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of his reign, Thutmose was praised to expand its territory to Mesopotamia.

Emperor Theodosius was praised on the marble base placed under the Obelisk. Rome, which experienced a great period of prosperity during the period of Constantine, faced disasters after his death. The defeats that lasted for several generations brought the empire to the brink of collapse. Theodosius, who took the lead of the Roman Empire, which was thrown into a great turmoil, was the ruler who put Rome back on track.

Theodosius ended the turmoil in Roman Empire in his 40s and started living in the capital. When the Egyptian Obelisk arrived in the city at his time, the column was named after him. In other words, the obelisk passed the Constantinian and Valentinian dynasties and only reached the city during the Theodosian dynasty.

Theodosius and his sons can be seen on the marble base used to raise the obelisk. Theodosius, the last emperor of the Roman Empire before division, was depicted watching his chariot races at the hippodrome with his sons Arcadius and Honorius.

However, the emperor died suddenly only five years after 390, when the obelisk was erected. After his death, the Roman Empire was divided into East and West. While his eldest son, Arcadius, took over the Eastern Roman Empire, Honorius, who was only 12 years old, started ruling the Western Roman Empire. Experienced generals on both sides were appointed as regent. However, despite all efforts, the Western Rome collapsed in 476.

Marble Base of the Egyptian Obelisk

Emperor Theodosius with Arcadius and Honorius
Emperor Theodosius

Obelisk of Theodosius in the Byzantine & Ottoman Empire

The Eastern Roman Empire was sustained by Arcadius and his successors. It continued its existence under the name of -so called- Byzantine Empire until the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. The Obelisk of Theodosius persisted throughout the Byzantine Empire.

During the Ottoman Empire, Hippodrome was now known as Horse Square. Again, it served as a center of events and was a square where festivals were held. No harm came to the Obelisk of Theodosius during the Ottoman period. It reached today with its hieroglyphs and reliefs.

The Enchanted Columns of Istanbul

During the Ottoman period, people respected monuments such as Walled Column, Obelisk of Theodosius and Serpent Column. It was believed that each of them had a talisman of its own. Although they suffered from various earthquakes and disasters, they managed to survive to the present day.

An interesting detail about the monuments in the hippodrome is the level difference on the ground. When you go to the Obelisk and look down, you notice how the ground rose in 1700 years. There is a height difference of about 3 meters between the modern paving stones of Sultanahmet and the original floor of the obelisks.

Earthquakes did not affect Column of Theodosius and Walled Column much, but caused serious damage to the Serpent Column. While two of the three snakes at the top of the column have disappeared, one is on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

History of the Obelisk of Theodosius by Serhat Engul


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