Now there was another wonderful sight in another part of the city, for near the Palace of Boukoleon was a place which was called the Games of the Emperor. That place was a full crossbow shot and a half long and nearly one wide. Around this place were fully thirty or forty steps where the Greeks used to climb up to watch the games. And above these steps was a very tasteful and noble box where the emperor and the empress used to sit when there were games with the other important men and ladies.... All along one side of this place was a wall which was surely fifteen feet high and ten wide; on this wall were statues of men, women, horses, oxen, camels, bears and lions as well as many kinds of beast, cast in copper, which were so well made and so naturally shaped that there was no master craftsman in Christian or pagan lands who knew how to sculpt or shape statues so skillfully as these statues were crafted. And in the past they used to play by magic. But they no longer play at all. And the Franks looked at these Games of the Emperor in amazement when they saw them.
Robert de Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople (XC)
HISTORY OF HIPPODROME
The word hippodrome comes from the Greek “hippos” - horse, and “dromos” - path or way. For this reason, it is also called «At Meydanı»- Horse Square in Turkish. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
The idea for the hippodrome originally came from Emperor Septimius Severus in 203. He came to Byzantium to beat down a rebellion in a Roman civil war, after which he raised the city walls, slaughtered most of the inhabitants, and introduced an arena for chariot races and other entertainment.
But it wasn’t until the arrival of Emperor Constantine the Great in 324 that the hippodrome got its final shape. Besides moving the seat of the government from Rome to Byzantium, renaming the city over Nova Roma (New Rome) to Constantinople, one of his greatest accomplishments was the renovation and enlargement of the existing Hippodrome.
The new u-shaped track was about 450 meters long and 130 meters wide, surrounded by a stadium with a capacity of approximately 100.000. Constantine also connected the emperor’s box (kathisma) to the then nearby Byzantine Great Palace via a passage which could only be used by the emperor and his family.
The Hippodrome Boxes, which had four statues of horses in gilded copper on top, stood at the northern end; and the Sphendone (curved tribune of the U-shaped structure) stood at the southern end. These four gilded horses, now called the Horses of Saint Mark, whose exact Greek or Roman ancestry has never been determined, were looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed on the façade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice. The track was lined with other bronze statues of famous horses and chariot drivers, none of which survive. The Hippodrome was filled with statues of gods, emperors and heroes, among them some famous works. In his book De Ceremoniis (book II, 15, 589), the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus described the decorations in the Hippodrome at the occasion of the visit of Saracen or Arab visitors, mentioning the purple hangings and rare tapestries.
Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city's social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate.
A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team) powered by four horses each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue. Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor's Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The Ottoman Turks, who captured the city in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire, were not interested in racing and the Hippodrome was gradually forgotten, although the site was never actually built over.
The Hippodrome was used for various occasions such as the lavish and days-long circumcision ceremony of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III. In Ottoman miniature paintings, the Hippodrome is shown with the seats and monuments still intact. Although the structures do not exist anymore, today's Sultanahmet Square largely follows the ground plan and dimensions of the now vanished Hippodrome.
MONUMENTS ON HIPPODROME
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 spina. Among these was the Tripod of Plataea, now known as the Serpentine 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 middle of the Hippodrome. The top was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl was destroyed or stolen during the Fourth Crusade. The serpent heads were destroyed as late as the end of the 17th century, as many Ottoman miniatures show they were intact in the early centuries following the Turkish conquest of the city. 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 Theodosius (Obelisk of Thutmose III)
Another emperor to adorn the Hippodrome was Theodosius the Great, who in about 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.
The German Fountain
The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain is an octagonal domed fountain in neo-Byzantine style, which was constructed by the German government in 1900 to mark the German Emperor Wilhelm II's visit to Istanbul in 1898, is located at the northern entrance to the Hippodrome area, right in front of the Blue Mosque.
MUSEUMS & SITES OF ISTANBUL
♦ Bosphorus Strait - A natural strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe from Asia
♦ Beylerbeyi Palace - one of the most magnificent Ottoman coastal palaces built in 1865
♦ Dolmabahce Palace Museum - The 19th century glamorous palace of Ottoman Sultans
♦ Hagia Sophia of Istanbul - The Church of Holy Wisdom built in 535 by Emperor Justinian
♦ Hippodrome (Atmeydani) - The stadium of ancient Byzantium, which once could hold 100.000 spectators
♦ Topkapi Palace Museum - The former seating residence of Ottoman Sultans built between 1459 & 1465