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The Hippodrome of Constantinople

Updated: Mar 26, 2023



Ruins of the Hippodrome, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in his work De Ludis Circensibus (Venice, 1600).



The same morning I saw Hagia Sophia—in fact, before I ever went inside—I first wandered around the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It isn't much to look at today, but its history is fascinating.


Sultanahmet Square, or the Hippodrome of Constantinople (Greek: Ἱππόδρομος τῆς Κωνσταντινουπόλεως), was an important square in the ancient city of Constantinople. The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos (horse) and dromos (path or way). (For this reason, the hippodrome is sometimes also called Atmeydanı, or"Horse Square," in Turkish.) Horse and chariot racing were popular in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine eras.


Although the Hippodrome is usually associated with Constantinople's days of glory as an imperial capital, it actually predates that era. The first Hippodrome was built in AD 203 when the city was a provincial town called Byzantium. In AD 324, the Emperor Constantine the Great decided to rebuild Byzantium after his victory at the nearby Battle of Chrysopolis. Constantine greatly enlarged the city, and one of his major undertakings was the renovation of the Hippodrome.


In its heyday, Constantine's Hippodrome was about 450 meters (1,476 feet) long and 130 meter (427 feet) wide and could hold up to 10,000 spectators. The spina (the middle barrier of the race course) was adorned with various monuments, including a monolithic obelisk and statues of gods, emperors, animals, and heroes—among them some famous works, such as a Lysippos' 4th-century BC Heracles, Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf Lupa, and the 5th-century BC Serpentine Column. The starting gates were topped by four statues of horses in gilded copper, which were looted in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade and taken to St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.


Constantinople never recovered after the Fourth Crusade, and, by 1453 when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans, the Hippodrome had fallen into ruin. The Ottomans were not interested in chariot racing, and the Hippodrome was gradually forgotten, but, interestingly, the site was never built over.


Today, the Hippodrome sits between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. There really isn't much to see except for the remains of the Serpentine Column, the Obelisk of Thutmose III, the Walled Obelisk, and the Statues of Porphyrius. But even these are fascinating in their own right, as many of them come from nearly a thousand miles (1,600 km) away and are several thousand years old.



In 390 AD, Emperor Theodosius the Great brought an obelisk from Egypt and erected it inside the hippodrome. Carved from pink granite, the obelisk 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 atop a marble pedestal today where Theodosius placed it. The granite obelisk has survived nearly 3,500 years in good condition.




The marble pedestal on which the Obelisk of Theodosius sits dates to the time of the obelisk's re-erection in Constantinople. On one face (pictured), Theodosius I is shown offering the crown of victory to the winner in the chariot races, framed between arches and Corinthian columns and surrounded by happy spectators, musicians, and dancers. In the bottom right of this scene is the water organ of Ctesibius and on the left another instrument.



In the 10th century, the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus built a second 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 survives and is known as the Walled Obelisk.



The Serpentine Column, or sacrificial tripod of Plataea, was originally part of a victory tripod, which was dedicated to the *Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi by the Greeks after their victory over the Persians in the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The bronze monument consists of three snakes twisting around each other to form the column shaft. When he renewed the hippodrome, Constantine the Great brought the column to Constantinople and placed it in the middle of the race track. The serpent heads and top third of the column were destroyed in 1700. Parts of the heads were recovered and are displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.



This is the surviving lower walls of the sphendone, the curved grandstand of the Hippodrome, which is located in the old city not far from the monuments pictured above. (Image from Gryffindor.)


As always, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my next installments about the Blue Mosque and Basilicia Cistern. The Blue Mosque was being restored during my visit, and it was difficult to see the interior, but the Basilica Cistern was amazing!



*When I later went to Greece, I visited the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. It was really interesting to see both the original Serpentine Column (or what's left of it) in Istanbul, and then to see its place of origin in Greece.


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