The City Hippodrome


The ”Hippodrome” (horse race-track) was built in the 2th A.D. during the reign of the Roman emperor Septimuis Serverus, and was expended to colossal dimension under Constantine the Great. Some historians record the seating capacity of this huge arena as 30,000 and some even go as high as 60,000. The Hippodrome, during the Roman and Beyazintine empires was the center for entertainment, amusement and sports in the city. Two or 4-horse chariot races highlighted each day’s programme which also featured performances by groups of musicians, dancers, acrobats and animal trainers. Especially during the Roman empire, when holidays were numerous, people had ample leisure time and spend most of it the Hippodrome.

The Hippodrome was U-shaped and the Emperor’s box, with four bronze statues of horses on its roof, was located by the eastern stretch of the track. A low wall separated the two stretches and also served as a podium for mementoes brought from all around the empire, and for the statues of famous chariot drives and horses. In those days days, a chariot race winner was regarded as a public hero and came to possess all the riches conceivable, Therefore, the chariot drivers compeded with all their might, sometimes employing the most ruthless tactics to win. They were divided into teams of ”Blues” , ” Greens” , ”Reds” , etc. and their fans even had political power. This intermixture of sports and politics sometimes led to curious event such as street fights and even massacres triggered just by the humiliation of one of the teams (or,more appropriately, political parties) in a chariot race. For centuries, the Hippodrome stood intact and remained as most importand landmarks in the Beyzantine city.

But, after the invasion of the Crusaders in 1204, it was stripped of almost all the monuments that once adorned it and eventually destroyed. Later, during the Ottoman rule of the city, the Hippodrome grounds were used occasionally for festivities and ceremonies that were reminiscent of its early times. What is left of once magnificient arena is the racing track-or rather the outline of it-whit the surface filled to a level 4 – 5 meters above the orginal, and only three monuments: Two obeliks and the Serpentine Column.

The Egyptian Obeliks

This obeliks made of exceptionally high quality pink granite was erected around 1490 B.C. by the Pharoah Tuthmosis III at a spot in front of the Temple of Karnak at Luxor to commemorate the victories of his armies in Mesopotamaia. It was brought to Istanbul during the fourt century upon orders of a Roman emperor not yet identified clearly, who wished to stage an event that would demonstrate his power and hence excite and impress his people. The obelisk was left lying at on corner of the Hippodrome for a long time until the year 390 during the reign of Theodosius I when it was erected with great difficulty by Proclus, one of the administrators of the city. This obelisk, the most ancient monument of Istanbul, was always considered, magical. The obelisk stands on four bronze cubes placed on a Roman base adorned with reliefs depicting the Emperor, his family and other important people watching the races from the imperial box as well as the people, musicians, dancers and chariot races. The height of the obelisk, with its base, is 25.60 meters from ground level.

The Walled Obelisk

At southern end of the Hippodrome stands the imitation obelisk built out of roughly shaped pieces of stone. The exact date it was built is not known. The monument is named after Emperor Constantine Porphyregenetus who had it repaired in 10th century. The bronze plates that used to cover its surfaces were stripped during the Fourth Crusade.

The Serpentine Column

The Serpentine Column is one of the most ancient monuments in Istanbul. It was orginally the base of a golden cauldron. The heads of three serpents whose bodies are twined in a column provided the three points on which the cauldron rested. The 8-metre column and the cauldron were made of bronze. The bronze items captured by 31 Greek cities when they defeated the Parsians in the 5th century. B.C. were melted and used to make the column and the cauldron which was erected at the Temple of Apollo in Delhi. In 234 A.D., Emperor Constantine the Great had it carried to Istanbul and erected at the Hippodrome. According to many sources, the heads of the serpents were still intact by the early 1700’s, but were broken afterwards.Later, one of heads was found and placed in the Istanbul Archaologial Museum.

The German Fountain

The octagonal, domed fountain at the entrance of the Hippodrome was a gift from the German Emperor Wilhelm II to Sultan Abdulhamit II and the city Istanbul. It was made in Germany and installed at its present site in Istanbul in 1989. The dome of the fountain, designed in the neo-Byzantine style, is decorated with golden mosaics. Although a beautiful piece of art, the German Fountain poses a contrast to the ancient monuments that surround it.