Hippodrome and Obelisk


In the square in front of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, one of the most famous areas in Byzantine Constantinople can be found; the Hippodrome. The ancient Hippodrome, was originally a gathering place, sports area and the scene of chariot races. The name originates from the Greek words hippos and dromos, meaning horse and pathway.

Today the area is carefully maintained by the Turkish authorities. The racetrack has been covered with paving; it is thought that the original track is more than two metres below the current surface. The area has never fully been excavated by archaeologists and it is thought that many more of the Hippodromes remains still lie beneath the parkland.

The Hippodrome originally predates the Constantinople era, back to the Greek Byzantium, where it was a town of reasonable importance. In 203 the area was enlarged, to include the arena for chariot racing and entertainment. In 324 the city became known as Constantinople, after the Emperor Constantine the Great. The Hippodrome was again renovated to hold 100,000 spectators.

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the cities social life and large amounts were bet on the chariot races. Initially, there were four teams, the Blues (Venetii), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi), all sponsored by various political parties. The reds are whites were the weakest and were soon absorbed by the blue and green.

The races were not simple and often involved political and religious rivalries, it was one of the only occasions where the Emperor and citizens would come together. Sometimes these rivalries would result in riots and occasionally civil wars, it is estimated that 30,000 people died during these times.

In 1453 when the Ottoman Turks captured the city, the Hippodrome was forgotten and fell into ruin.


During the Constantine era, artworks from all over the world were set up in the middle of the Hippodrome. The Serpent Column was a symbol of the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian War in the 5th century BC. Originally the statue was decorated with a golden bowl, supported by three serpent heads, now all that remains is the base. It is not known whether the bowl was stolen or destroyed during the fourth crusade. The three serpent heads were destroyed later, sometime in the 17th century. However, parts of these serpent heads were discovered and are now displayed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

This Obelisk was brought from Egypt by the emperor Theodosius the Great in 390. Originally the Obelisk was erected at the temple if Karnak in Luxor and carved from pink granite. However Theodosius had the obelisk divided into three pieces and brought to Constantinople, unfortunately only the top section survived. The Obelisk is now over 3500 years old.

The only thing that remains of this Obelisk is the stone core. The 10th century Emperor who built this Obelisk had it covered in gilded bronze plaques, unfortunately, they too were sacked by Latin troops in the Fourth Crusade.

On the spine of the Hippodrome there were seven statues erected in honour of Porphyries, who was a legendary chariot racer. Unfortunately, none of these survived and only two bases are displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

This German fountain was constructed by the German Government in 1900 to mark the German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898.  It can be found at the northern entrance, directly in front of the Blue Mosque.

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