Hippodrome of Constantinople was built for chariot racing, which was the most important sports of the Byzantines. Nevertheless, it was more than a place for chariot races and other sports activities. Located in Sultanahmet/Istanbul, the hippodrome was also home to gladiatorial games, official ceremonies, celebrations, protests, torture to the convicts and so on. The word “hippodrome” comes from the Greek hippos (horse) and dromos (way). Hippodrome functioned all in Roman (203-330 CE), Byzantine (330-1453 CE), and Ottoman (1453-1922) periods.
History of the Hippodrome of Constantinople
When Roman Emperor Septimius Severus conquered ancient Constantinople (Byzantion) in 203 CE, he named the city as Augusta Antonina and built many structures. Hippodrome was one of the significant structures built by Severus. However, the first Hippodrome was unfinished and small.
In 330 CE, Constantine I declared the city as the capital of the Byzantine Empire and named it Constantinople, meaning Constantine’s city (Constantine + polis) in Greek. One of the first structures that Constantine I rebuilt was the Hippodrome. He enlarged the hippodrome and connected it to the Great Palace of Constantinople that today lies underneath the Blue Mosque. Throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire, the hippodrome was center of townspeople’s lives and we know from the sources that the population of Constantinople was approximately 400,000 between the fifth and seventh centuries CE. Meanwhile, it is believed that capacity of the hippodrome was 40,000.
Hippodrome was also used by the Ottomans as well and they named it At Meydanı (Horse Square), yet they simply used it as a square. Even, during the Ottoman period in 1720, fifteen-days long circumcision ceremony of the sons of Ahmet III took place in the hippodrome and in Surname-i Vehbi (Ottoman miniature painting book describing the circumcision ceremony of the sons of Ahmet III) the hippodrome is shown with the seats and monuments still intact. Asitane Restaurant, a restaurant offering Ottoman imperial cuisine and in the process of creating their food menus they benefited from Surname-i Vehbi, because Surname-i Vehbi not only describes circumcision ceremony of the sons of Ahmet III, but also lists the foods and ingredients served during celebrations.
Constructions of İbrahim Paşa Palace (now housing Turkish and Islamic Art Museum) and Blue Mosque in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries damaged the hippodrome. Subsequently, mid-eighteenth century onwards it was abandoned and destroyed. Today, the area is known as Sultanahmet Square and it follows the ground plan and dimensions of the hippodrome.
Interesting facts about the Hippodrome of Constantinople
- In 390 CE, Byzantine emperor Theodosius I brought the Obelisk of Thutmosis III from Karnak (Southern Egypt) to Constantinople, erected it inside the hippodrome and named it “Obelisk of Theodosius” (Dikilitaş in Turkish). It is one of the twenty-nine Egyptian obelisks in the world. Despite 3500 years, the obelisk is still in good condition.
- During the Nika Riots in 532 CE, Byzantine emperor Justinian I ordered the killing of 30,000 people locked in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
- During the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the Constantinopolitans’ everyday life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and there were four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi).
- Good charioteers were as important as public heroes during the Byzantine period. Legendary charioteer Porphyrios was a very successful charioteer, who raced for both Blues and Greens. According to the primary sources, there were several statues of Charioteer Porphyrios around the hippodrome; unfortunately none of these statues are surviving but the bases of two statues – including an inscription praising Charioteer Porphyrios – are exhibited at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.