The square Sultanahmet beside
occupies the site which was once the heart of ancient city Constantinople.
Today, the square is
no longer a civil centre, but it is still a central point for visiting the
antiquities on the First Hill.
Please click on
Ancient City for more
information and some pictures.
The Hippodrome of
Constantinople was a circus that was the sporting and social centre of
Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest city in Europe.
Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square) in the
Turkish city of Istanbul, with only a few fragments of the original structure
surviving. It is sometimes also called Atmeydani (Horse Square) in Turkish.
The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos ('ιππος), horse, and dromos (δρομος),
path or way. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the
ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the
Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
Istanbul (historically also known as Byzantium and Constantinople is the largest
city in Turkey and fifth largest city proper in the world with a population of
12.6 million. Istanbul is also a megacity, as well as the cultural and financial
centre of Turkey. The city covers 39 districts of the Istanbul province. It is
located on the Bosphorus Strait and encompasses the natural harbour known as the
Golden Horn, in the northwest of the country. It extends both on the European
(Thrace) and on the Asian (Anatolia) sides of the Bosphorus, and is thereby the
only metropolis in the world that is situated on two continents.
In its long history, Istanbul has served as the capital city of the Roman Empire
(330395), the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire (3951204 and 12611453), the Latin
Empire (12041261), and the Ottoman Empire (14531922). The city was chosen as
joint European Capital of Culture for 2010. The historic areas of Istanbul were
added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985.
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 when the city was called Byzantium, and was a provincial
town of moderate importance. In 203 the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the
city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot
races and other entertainment.
In 324, the Emperor Constantine the Great decided to move the seat of the
government from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Nova Roma (New Rome). This
name failed to impress and the city soon became known as Constantinople, the
City of Constantine. Constantine greatly enlarged the city, and one of his major
undertakings was the renovation of the Hippodrome. It is estimated that the
Hippodrome of Constantine was about 450 m (1,476 ft) long and 130 m (427 ft)
wide. Its stands were capable of holding 100,000 spectators.
The race-track at the Hippodrome was U-shaped, and the Kathisma (emperor's loge)
was located at the eastern end of the track. The Kathisma could be accessed
directly from the Great Palace through a passage which only the emperor or other
members of the imperial family could use. The Hippodrome Boxes, which had four
statues of horses in gilded copper on top, stood at the northern end; and the Sphendone (curved tribune of the U-shaped structure, the lower part of which
still survives) stood at the southern end. These four gilded horses, now called
the Horses of Saint Mark, whose exact Greek or Roman ancestry has never been
determined, were looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed on the
façade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice. The track was lined with other bronze
statues of famous horses and chariot drivers, none of which survive. The
hippodrome was filled with statues of gods, emperors and heroes, among them some
famous works, such as a Heracles by Lysippos, Romulus and Remus with their wolf
and the Serpent Column of the Plataean tripod. In his book De Ceremoniis
(book II,15, 589), the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus described the
decorations in the hippodrome at the occasion of the visit of Saracen or Arab
visitors, mentioning the purple hangings and rare tapestries. 
Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city's
social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams
took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a
different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues
(Venetii), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi).
The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed
by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).
A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses
each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not
simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which
the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue.
Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly
accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor's
Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or
religious rivalries, and sometimes riots, which amounted to civil wars that
broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots
of 532, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed  and
many important buildings, such as the second Hagia Sophia Church, were
destroyed. The current (third) Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian following the Nika Revolt.
Constantinople never really recovered from its sack during the Fourth Crusade
and even though the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, by that time, the
Hippodrome had fallen into ruin. The Ottoman Turks, who captured the city in
1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire, were not interested in
racing and the Hippodrome was gradually forgotten, although the site was never
actually built over.
The Hippodrome was used for various occasions such as the lavish and days-long
circumcision ceremony of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III. In Ottoman miniature
paintings, the Hippodrome is shown with the seats and monuments still intact.
Although the structures do not exist anymore, today's Sultanahmet Square largely
follows the ground plan and dimensions of the now vanished Hippodrome.