The Hippodrome of Istanbul, a rectangular arena nestled alongside Sultanahmet Park, has witnessed a rich tapestry of history spanning over millennia. For the Byzantine emperors, it was a cherished venue for chariot races, while the Ottoman sultans closely monitored events here, as the Hippodrome often served as the stage for political dramas and uprisings. Today, this iconic site stands as one of the city's most beloved meeting places and promenades, enticing visitors with its fascinating stories and well-preserved remnants.
In its prime, the Hippodrome featured two levels of galleries, a central spine, starting boxes, and a semicircular southern end known as the Sphendone, parts of which still remain today. The galleries that once adorned this magnificent stone structure were damaged during the Fourth Crusade and eventually dismantled during the Ottoman era, with many of the original columns repurposed in the construction of the illustrious Süleymaniye Mosque.
The Hippodrome's significance was not merely confined to hosting thrilling chariot races; it was the cultural epicenter of Byzantium for a thousand years and continued to hold a prominent place in Ottoman life for another four centuries. The rivalry between the chariot teams of 'Greens' and 'Blues,' each aligned with different sectarian affiliations, reflected the political landscape of the time. Supporting a particular team was akin to belonging to a political party, and a victory for one team often influenced policy decisions. However, these rivalries occasionally escalated into larger conflicts, as seen in AD 532 during the Nika riots, where protesters raised their cry of "Nika!" (Victory!) against Emperor Justinian's high tax regime. The riots led to a massacre of tens of thousands of protesters within the Hippodrome by imperial forces, resulting in a ban on chariot races for some time thereafter.
The Hippodrome's political significance did not diminish during the Ottoman era. The presence of a disgruntled crowd gathering here could foreshadow potential disturbances, riots, and even revolutions in the empire. Notably, in 1826, the reformer Sultan Mahmut II carried out the massacre of the corrupt janissary corps, the sultan's personal bodyguards, within the Hippodrome. Similarly, in 1909, riots erupted here, leading to the downfall of Sultan Abdül Hamit II.
Despite the potential risks associated with the Hippodrome being a focal point for political unrest, both emperors and sultans strived to embellish it, vying to outdo each other in grandeur. Statues from all corners of their empires adorned the center of the Hippodrome, reflecting their power and authority. Regrettably, over time, many of these priceless statues crafted by ancient masters vanished from their original locations. Among the culprits behind this cultural theft were the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who invaded Constantinople—a Christian ally city—in 1204.
At the northern end of the Hippodrome, visitors can marvel at the elegant Kaiser Wilhelm's Fountain, featuring beautiful stonework. This fountain was a gift from the German emperor to Sultan Abdül Hamit II during his state visit in 1898, symbolizing their political alliance. The dome's interior is adorned with Abdül Hamit's tuğra (calligraphic signature) and the first letter of Wilhelm's name, signifying their union.
Another highlight of the Hippodrome is the impeccably preserved pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius, which originally stood in the Amon-Re temple at Karnak in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III. Emperor Theodosius the Great brought it to Constantinople in AD 390. The marble podium below the obelisk features intricately carved scenes of Theodosius, his family, state officials, and bodyguards witnessing chariot-race action from the imperial box.
South of the obelisk stands the enigmatic Spiral Column, rising from a hole in the ground. Originally adorned with three serpents' heads, the column commemorated the Hellenic confederation's victory over the Persians in the Battle of Plataea in 478 BC. Constantine the Great had the column brought to his newly established capital city around AD 330. Though damaged during the Byzantine era, the serpents' heads survived until the early 18th century, with one upper jaw discovered later and now housed in the İstanbul Archaeology Museums.
Tragically, the Rough-Stone Obelisk, located at the Hippodrome's southern end, fell victim to the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who mistakenly believed its plates were made of solid gold. In reality, the plates were gold-covered bronze. Furthermore, the Crusaders pilfered the renowned Triumphal Quadriga—a team of four bronze horses—and installed it atop the main door of Venice's Basilica di San Marco. Today, replicas stand in place of the original horses, which were moved to the basilica for safekeeping.
As you stroll through the Hippodrome, you can't help but feel transported back in time, walking in the footsteps of emperors and sultans who shaped the course of history within these hallowed grounds. The echoes of their triumphs and tragedies reverberate through the ancient stones, connecting visitors to the captivating narratives that have unfolded here over the centuries. With each step, the Hippodrome reveals its multifaceted significance as a cultural, political, and social hub—a testament to the enduring legacy of the empires that once thrived in this vibrant city of Istanbul.