The Hippodrome of Constantinople, located today in Sultanahmet Square, was a public arena located in the ancient city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) that was primarily used for horse racing. The word Hippodrome came from the Greek terms hippos and dromos. Hippos means horse, while dromos means way.
It is now one of the main tourist attractions in Sultanahmet that is visited by many locals and foreigners. During the reign of the Byzantine Empire, the place has held court ceremonies, coronations, protests, and gladiator games, making it a significant part of Istanbul’s history. It also functioned as a sport and social center during the Byzantine era.
The ancient Constantinople was named Byzantion (Byzantium) in 203 CE. During this time, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus conquered the land and built many structures. One of which is the Hippodrome. Emperor Severus went to Byzantium to defeat a rebellion during the Roman civil war. He set up the city walls, slaughtered many inhabitants, and constructed this arena for chariot racing and other types of entertainment. The Hippodrome at that time was still small.
Constantine The Great
It got its final shape during the reign of Emperor Constantine The Great. He turned the city into the capital of the empire and renamed it Constantinople. One of the outstanding accomplishments of Emperor Constantine was the rebuilding and expansion of the previous Hippodrome. He also connected the arena to the Byzantine Great Palace. The passage was only accessible by the royal family back then. The Hippodrome was able to house about 40,000 people and could hold eight games in one day.
The Hippodrome was managed by many empires that have passed through the decades. The many stunning statues and columns that can be seen at the midfield of Hippodrome is proof of how the different emperors try to outdo each other. The so-called Hippodrome Boxes that houses four copper statues of horses in gilded copper is found at the northern end of the race track. While at the southern end, you can see the Sphendone of Hippodrome. Back then, there were four initial racing teams: the Blues (Venetii), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi), and the Whites (Leukoi). Each was supported by a specific political party of the Byzantine or Roman senate. The rivalry between the Blues and the Greens has been associated with some political or religious dispute. This fight sometimes caused riots or civil wars to occur. The most notable one is the Nika revolt that happened in 532 AD.
The Fourth Crusade
The Sack of Constantinople that happened in 1204 marked the peak of the Fourth Crusade. Invaders have looted and destroyed many parts of Constantinople, including the Hippodrome. The four copper horses were taken to St. Mark’s in Venice. Then, the Ottomans, who are not interested in horseracing, have only used the place as a square. The construction of the Ibrahim Pasa Palace and Blue Mosque has eventually damaged the Hippodrome until it got ruined and abandoned during the mid-eighteenth century. Currently, the area is known as Sultan Ahmet Square.
What To See
Despite the abandonment that it got throughout the years, you can still see a glimpse of how it looked like centuries ago. The Hippodrome is now a public garden that is open for tourists to visit. The path around follows an identical course of the previous race track. Aside from that, some remnants of the Hippodrome still stand tall, reminding the people of the historical value that the place holds.
The Egyptian Obelisk was carved around 1500 BC as a commemoration of the triumphs of Pharaoh Thutmose III. It is originally from the Temple of Karnak at Thebes, Egypt, and was moved to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 390. The pillar is only about one-third of its original height. It is supported by a marble base that has sculptures of Theodosius and his family enjoying the chariot race.
The Serpentine or Spiral Column was initially called the Tripod of Plataea. It symbolizes the victory of the Greeks against the Persians in 480 BC. Under Constantine’s order, the column was transferred from the Temple of Apollo to the center of Hippodrome. It is a strange, ancient, bronze column that once had a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads at the top. The bowl was stolen and destroyed, so today, you’ll only get to see the column. However, one of the serpent head was retrieved and is now displayed at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Column of Constantine
This is located next to the Serpentine Column. It is also called the Walled Obelisk and can be seen at the south end of Hippodrome. It was made from roughly cut stones that appear like stacked bricks. It is named after the emperor of the same name, who repaired the structure in the 10th century. Initially, it had bronze plates with golden letterings. But these decorations were stolen during the Fourth Crusade.
Kaiser Wilhelm II Fountain
Also known as the German Fountain, it’s a gazebo-like monument with a Neo-Byzantine style located at the far end of Sultanahmet Square. Originally, it was built as a gift from the German emperor to Sultan Abdul Hamid II and his subjects to signify friendship and amity between the nations.
To get to the Hippodrome, you may ride a tram to Sultanahmet. You can also opt to take a taxi. The Hippodrome is only a two-minute walk from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
The Hippodrome of Constantinople sits at the heart of Istanbul’s historical point: Sultanahmet. That being said, it is found near the other monuments and museums that also have historical significance. These include the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Hagia Sophia. The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum and the underground Basilica Cistern are also two attractions that are close to the Hippodrome.
Since it is a tourist-filled area, you may also find hotels and accommodations that suit your preference and budget. The Four Seasons Sultanahmet, Armada Sultanahmet, and Ibrahim Pasha Hotel are just some of the finest places that you can stay in during your trip.