Hippodrome of Constantinople in Istanbul

Hippodrome in Istanbul

Hippodrome of Constantinople in 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, Topkapi Palace 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, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital 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, Hagia Sophia, the Forum of Constantine and the Hippodrome. The ancient Hippodrome called Circus Maximus in Rome was modeled in the construction of the Hippodrome where the chariots will compete.

Hippodrome of Constantinople History

Constantinople during the Roman and Byzantine era

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.

Hippodrome of Constantinople Facts

On the orders of the Emperor, important historical monuments from the ancient centers of the Roman Empire were moved here. Constantine wanted to give legitimacy to the city 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 during earthquakes and fires.

Hippodrome of Constantinople in Istanbul

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. Because chariot races were more than a sporting event, they had 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 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.

Blues and Greens at the Hippodrome of Constantinople
Chariot Races in the Hippodrome of Constantinople

What to See in the Hippodrome in Istanbul

Today there are 3 historical monuments in the Hippodrome. The most important of these is the Egyptian Obelisk with its history dating back to 1500 BC. The hieroglyphs on this Obelisk describe the victories of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III.

The second important work is the Serpentine Column brought from Delphi, the holy city of Ancient Greece. Unfortunately, the snake heads, which were known to be in place until the end 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.

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 during the Ottoman Empire

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.

Hippodrome of Constantinople by Serhat Engul

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