The Hippodrome: A Historic Venue of Political Drama in Istanbul

  • 08 April 2023

Hippodrome Sultanahmet

Welcome to the Hippodrome, a rectangular arena located alongside Sultanahmet Park that was once the favored venue for chariot races by the Byzantine emperors. Today, it is a popular meeting place and promenade for locals and tourists alike.

Originally, the Hippodrome had two levels of galleries, a central spine, starting boxes, and a semicircular southern end called the Sphendone, parts of which still stand today. However, the galleries were dismantled during the Ottoman period, and many of the original columns were used in the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The Hippodrome served as the center of Byzantium's life for 1000 years and of Ottoman life for another 400 years, and has witnessed countless political dramas. In the Byzantine era, chariot teams known as 'Greens' and 'Blues' had separate sectarian connections, and support for a team was akin to membership in a political party. Occasionally, these teams joined forces against the emperor, such as in AD 532 when a chariot race was disrupted by protests against Justinian's high tax regime, which led to the Nika riots, resulting in the massacre of tens of thousands of protesters in the Hippodrome by imperial forces.

Even the Ottoman sultans kept a close watch on activities in the Hippodrome, as a surly crowd gathering here could signal the start of a disturbance, riot, and ultimately, a revolution. In 1826, Sultan Mahmut II carried out the slaughter of the corrupt janissary corps, the sultan's personal bodyguards, here. In 1909, riots at the Hippodrome caused the downfall of Abdül Hamit II.

Despite the ever-present threat of political upheaval, emperors and sultans sought to beautify the Hippodrome and adorned its center with statues from all corners of the empire. Unfortunately, many priceless statues carved by ancient masters have disappeared from their original homes here, with the Fourth Crusade's soldiers being primarily responsible for such thefts.

Kaiser Wilhelm's Fountain, a little gazebo with beautiful stonework, is located near the northern end of the Hippodrome. The German emperor presented this fountain to Sultan Abdül Hamit II in 1901 as a token of friendship during his state visit to the Ottoman Empire.

The Hippodrome also boasts several notable landmarks, including the pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius at its center, which was originally carved in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III and brought to Constantinople in AD 390. The Spiral Column, located south of the obelisk, was cast to commemorate a victory of the Hellenic confederation over the Persians in the Battle of Plataea.

Lastly, the Rough-Stone Obelisk at the Hippodrome's southern end was once believed to be solid gold by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who stole its gold-covered bronze plates. The Crusaders also took the famous Triumphal Quadriga, a team of four horses cast in bronze, and placed it atop the main door of Venice's Basilica di San Marco, with replicas now located in the basilica for safekeeping.

In conclusion, the Hippodrome is a site rich in history and political significance, attracting visitors from all around the world to appreciate its beauty and importance.