The Hippodrome and its monuments (Narges Aminolsharei)

The Other Side of Byzantium
Late Antique and Byzantine Art

Field Trip 1 (24 October 2009)

The Hippodrome of Constantinople is located in the Marmara region of Turkey, in the city of Istanbul and in the Eminonu district. It is one of the city’s most famous historical buildings and an UNESCO landmark. It should be said that this was the largest hippodrome (stadium) of the Ancient world, even larger than Rome’s Circus Maximus- which the hippodrome was designed after. It should also be noted that history’s first “four-horse chariot races” were conducted in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Although the construction of the Hippodrome was began by Roman emperor Septimius Severus, it was enlarged by Constantine later on, when the Roman empire was moved to Constantine from Rome.

The architectural features of the Hippodrome include the Starting Boxes (starting point of the race, obviously) and the curved finish line (semi-circle) at the south end, called the “Sphendone”. The “Spina”, or in other words the middle line separating the two sides (of the race track) is beautifully decorated with monuments such as obelisks and spinal columns. The emperors and the rest of the Royal family or men of importance in Byzantine times would enjoy the races from their special seats in the Kathisma, an elevated box that stood well above the other spectators (to show the power and holiness of an emperor), and could only be accessed directly from the Great Palace.

It should be no surprise then that the Hippodrome, as any other stadium or sporting arena in either ancient or modern times, was the heart of Constantinople’s politics and political discourse and even riots took place in the area at one time- alongside the games, of course.
It is true that this was the sight of athletic activity, but the games and chariot races in particular gave opportunity to those opposing groups (whether it be religion or politics) to show their support or lack thereof.

After the Ottoman overtake of the city, the Hippodrome took the name “At Meydan”, meaning “horse square” due to the ancient function of the stadium. It was still used in major celebrations, such as weddings or circumcision feast for a king’s son, for instance.

Today, out of all the beautiful decorations of the “Spina”, the central axis of the Hippodrome, only three remain: the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpentine Column, and the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenetus.

Egyptian Obelisk: Other times called the Obelisk of Theodosius, was actually originally the Obelisk of Thutmosis III, which was transferred from Egypt to first, Alexandria, where it stayed many years waiting to be moved to Constantinople. Even when it arrived at Constantinople, it was not immediately moved to the Hippodrome. When Theodosius finally moved it to it’s permanent spot in 390 CE, it became known as the Obelisk of Theodosis. This monument originally was meant to praise the pharaoh’s victory and triumph, but it would also show the power and glory of the Byzantine emperors. It rests on four bronze
blocks, which themselves are situated on a large square marble block. Interestingly, as Prof. Ricci pointed out while discussing the monument at hand, it withstood many earthquakes and fires due to its marble make-up and also the fact that it was built in a way to handle seismic activity up to a certain point. It is also important to know that the Obelisk was originally even taller!But had to be cut probably in order to be shipped. On the four sides of the base block, there are various carvings. The one that was of most interest to me was of the emperor Theodosius, with the Royal family watching the chariot races,
surrounded by gaurds, sitting in his Kathisma (imperial box) and wearing his “fibula” (imperial shoulder piece holding the toga in place). The very bottom, much smaller base block has Greek inscriptions and hieroglyphic pictograms on it. It is fascinating to find that the Obelisk stands 19 meters tall even with having been cut.

Serpentine Column: Brought from Delphi, Greece to Constantinople by Constantine I in the 4th century CE. It’s a column that consists of three intertwined serpents, hence the name. This monument was meant to celebrate the naval triumph of the Greeks over the Persians. The Serpentine Column was originally about 8 meters high and was thought to hold a golden pot at the top. The snake heads are also destroyed. Although, pieces of one of the heads was found during an excavation and rests now at the Archaeological Museum.

Columns of Constantine Porphyrogenetus: This monument was originally covered with bronze plates which were later ripped off, during the fourth Crusade. This, too, is placed upon a marble base.

*Conservation of historic heritage visited

In my personal opinion, the historic heritage sites that we visited, ranging from Augusteon square located in “messe” (now called Divan Yolu), to the Palace of Antiochos (church of St. Euphemia), and the substructure beneath the Byzantine emperors’ palace and Peristyle
Court are poorly kempt and not given a lot of attention. Granted, the Hippodrome looks great, and so does the Mosaic Museum. They are both excellently conserved with brochures, and signs, but the monuments or places mentioned above could definitely use some more
attention. This is not to say that the state or the departments in charge of historical conservation should disturb the archaeological sites and/or change anything drastically, but maybe cleaning the Palace of Antiochos (church of St. Euphemia) area or maybe putting a readable sign somewhere for the tourists that they are, for example, standing at the Augusteon square or at the church of St. Euphemia, or even the substructure which is abandoned beneath an “otopark”. Perhaps, this is just my opinion though, since I am a first-time Art History student and don’t know much about how these archaeological sites are conserved or, ought to be conserved, I should say.

I had been to Sultan Ahmet square approximately 50 times, and I had walked around the “Meydan” taking pictures and buying ice cream and grilled chestnuts, and even stayed at a hotel RIGHT beside the Antiochos Palace with my parents for about 2 weeks, but never had I ever seen it like I did on that sunny, beautiful Saturday. I had a fantastic time, even though I had had a long night the night before. I thought the monuments and the places we looked at were beyond fascinating and I loved getting a first-hand experiences on the
historical heritage in this beautiful city that I would not have otherwise received had I not taken this course. The whole group was so friendly and approachable, and everyone seemed to be so interested in the material. The weather definitely made things brighter too. Having lunch in that traditional cafe was also pretty nice. And the highlight for me was visiting the substructure. Definitely will always remember it. I’ve already sent my friends and family all the pictures, and have promised to tell them all about it once I get back home. All in all, I found it to be a fabulous day, filled with adventure and novel things that I had never done before, but maybe again that is because this is my first Art History class. I’m sure glad I didn’t take Econ as an elective!! 🙂

Narges Aminolsharei
Wednesday, November 4, 2009.


1. “Istanbul- Hippodrome of Constantinople/ Sultanahmet Square.” n.p. e-Turkey, 2008. Web. 3 November 2009.

2. “Istanbul’s Castles, Towers, and Columns.” Burak Sansal. All About, 1996-2009. Web. 3 November 2009.

3. “Hippodrome of Constantinople, Istanbul.” n.p., 2009. Web. 3 November 2009.

4. “ISTANBUL– Hippodrome (At Meydani).” n.p. Points From, n.d. Web. 3 November 2009.


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