The Byzantine emperors loved nothing more than an afternoon at the chariot races, and this rectangular arena alongside Sultanahmet Park was their venue of choice. In its heyday, it was decorated by obelisks and statues, some of which remain in place today. Re-landscaped in more recent years, it is one of the city’s most popular meeting places and promenades.
Originally the arena consisted of two levels of galleries, a central spine, starting boxes and the semicircular southern end known as the Sphendone ( Hippodrome, Nakilbent Sokak; jSultanahmet), parts of which still stand. The galleries that once topped this stone structure were damaged during the Fourth Crusade and ended up being totally dismantled in the Ottoman period; many of the original columns were used in the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque.
The Hippodrome was the centre of Byzantium’s life for 1000 years and of Ottoman life for another 400 years, and has been the scene of countless political dramas. In Byzantine times, the rival chariot teams of ‘Greens’ and ‘Blues’ had separate sectarian connections. Support for a team was akin to membership of a political party, and a team victory had important effects on policy.
Occasionally, Greens and Blues joined forces against the emperor, as was the case in AD 532 when a chariot race was disturbed by protests against Justinian’s high tax regime. This escalated into the Nika riots (so called after the protesters’ cry of Nika!, or Victory!), which led to tens of thousands of protesters being massacred in the Hippodrome by imperial forces. Not surprisingly, chariot races were banned for some time afterwards.
Ottoman sultans also kept an eye on activities in the Hippodrome. If things were going badly in the empire, a surly crowd gathering here could signal the start of a disturbance, then a riot, then a revolution. In 1826 the slaughter of the corrupt janissary corps (the sultan’s personal bodyguards) was carried out here by the reformer Sultan Mahmut II. In 1909 there were riots here that caused the downfall of Abdül Hamit II.
Despite the ever-present threat of the Hippodrome being the scene of their downfall, emperors and sultans sought to outdo one another in beautifying it, and adorned the centre with statues from the far reaches of the empire. Unfortunately, many priceless statues carved by ancient masters have disappeared from their original homes here. Chief among those responsible for such thefts were the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, who invaded Constantinople, a Christian ally city, in 1204.
The Hippodrome had a rectangular plan with southern edge rounded, and was a horse car racing area allowing 30-40 thousand people to watch. Racing cars were rounding Spina, the wall in the center. Only three of the monuments on Spina do extant. These are; Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpent Column and the Walled Obelisk.
The Hippodrome’s name was changed to Horse Square (At meydanı) during the Ottoman era. Beside palace weddings, big ceremonies and javelin games, riots were experienced in this square.