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The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a horse-racing track 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 in Istanbul, with only a few fragments of the original structure surviving.

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.

History and use

Although the Hippodrome is usually associated with Constantinople's days of glory as an imperial capital, it actually predates that era. The first Hippdrome was built when the city was called Byzantium (Byzantion in Greek), 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 entertainments.

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 150 metres long and 130 metres wide. Its stands were capable of holding 100,000 spectators.

The race-track at the Hippodrome was U-shaped, and the Emperor's box, with four bronze statues of horses on its roof, was located at the eastern end of the track. These horses, which were cast in the 5th century BC and brought from Greece, were looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed on the fa├žade 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.

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city's social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and the whole city was divided between fans of the Blue (Venetii) and Green (Prasinoi) chariot racing teams. The two other racing teams, the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi), gradually weakened and were absorbed by the two major factions. Frequently rivalry between Blues and Greens became mingled with political or religious factions, and riots which sometimes amounted to civil wars broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which 30 000 people were said to have been killed.

Constantinople never really recovered from its sack during the Fourth Crusade and even though the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, the Hippodrome was not rebuilt and did not regain its former glory. 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.

Hippodrome monuments

To raise the image of his new capital, Constantine and his successors brought works of art from all over the empire to adorn it. Among these was the Tripod of Plataea, cast to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC. Constantine ordered the Tripod to be moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and set in middle of the Hippodrome. Most of it was destroyed or stolen when the city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. All that remains today is part of the base, known as the "Serpentine Column."

Another Emperor to adorn the Hippodrome was Theodosius the Great, who in 390 brought an obelisk from Egypt and erected it inside the racing track. Carved from pink granite, it was originally erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Tuthmosis III in about 1490 BC. Theodosius had the obelisk cut into three pieces and brought to Constantinople. Only the top section survives, and it stands today where Theodosius placed it, on a marble pedestal. The obelisk has survived nearly 3,000 years in astonishingly good condition.

In the 10th century the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus built another obelisk at the other end of the Hippodrome. It was originally covered with gilded bronze plaques, but these were stolen during the Fourth Crusade. The stone core of this monument also survives, known as the Walled Obelisk.

The Hippodrome today

Today the area is officially called Sultanahmet Square, and is carefully maintained by the Turkish authorities. The course of the old racetrack has been indicated with paving, although the actual track is some two metres below the present surface. The surviving monuments of the spina (the middle barrier of the racecourse), the two obelisks and the Serpentine Column, now sit in holes in a landscaped garden.

The German Fountain ("The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain"), an octagonal domed fountain in New Byzantine style, which was donated 1900 to the Ottoman Empire by the German Emperor Wilhelm II after his visit to Istanbul in 1898, is located at the north entrance to the Hippodrome area right in front of the Blue Mosque.

The Hippodrome has never been systematically excavated by archaeologists. A portion of the substructures of the sphendone (the curved end) became more visible in the 1980s with the clearing of houses in the area. In 1993 an area in front of the nearby Sultanahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque) was bulldozed in order to install a new toilet, uncovering several rows of seats and some columns from the Hippodrome. Investigation did not continue further, but the seats and columns were removed and can now be seen in Istanbul's museums. It is possible that much more of the Hippodrome's remains still lie beneath the parkland of Sultanahmet.