İstanbul, Turkey’s least known city
Which city in Turkey is the least known in general? You may have a hard time believing this, but the answer to this question is actually İstanbul. No doubt you may have difficulty believing this but the truth of the matter is, what we currently know about this city, which has been home to so many empires, is quite insubstantial in comparison to what we actually ought to know. That being the case, how would you feel about touring İstanbul’s oldest city square with an art historian?
Today we’ll talk about a spot which you may have passed by countless times before, perhaps even using it as a meeting point or maybe sharing an iftar (fast-breaking) dinner with others. You have definitely heard of it even if you have never been there: This is Sultanahmet Square, also known as “At Meydanı” or by its oldest name, the Hippodrome.
This is a spot that has witnessed so much history. Its history begins with the first human settlements in İstanbul. The first settlement by Bizas (not the Bizans, or Byzantines) and his tribe, which came from the Balkans, was in Sarayburnu, right next to this important spot. The importance of the region in general began to increase and it drew the attention of the Roman Empire. The great Roman Emperor Septimius Severus had the city walls destroyed when he conquered Byzantium, demolishing the entire area down to rubble. But the general attraction of Sarayburnu and the location of the square had the effect of making him change his mind quickly. A decision was made to develop the immediate area and this began with the rebuilding of the city walls and ramparts and other parts of the region as well, which was when the founding of the famous Hippodrome began.
Later, the significant status held by this region attracted the attention of the new Emperor Constantine and there were plans in motion to establish a capital of the Roman Empire that would rule over both the East and the West. But of course, such a capital required an emperor’s palace. And in front of this palace, there needed to be an imperial square where competitions, games and all sorts of activities could take place, where the leader could “feel the pulse” of his people and where all the glory of the empire could be shown off, similar to Circus Maximus in Rome.
The Hippodrome was of course the center of many races and competitions usually involving horses and chariots, which is why it is not round like the Colosseum, but rather U-shaped. Interestingly, similar hippodromes built in Karacasu and Kütahya are regarded as the smaller siblings of the one in İstanbul, although there is one notable difference. The Hippodrome in İstanbul boasts a wall in its middle, called a “spina,” with imperial monuments on it. In fact, people racing in the Hippodrome would go around this “spina” in their attempts to win.
What was there before the mosque?
The city, now called Constantinople, was very new. There were not many historic events or legends connected with this new square in front of the palace. At the same time, there was a need to make this spot worthy of its imperial might. It was decided that objects signifying glory, honor, rule and belief from the four corners of the world would be carried through the square to show the rest of the world the power and significance of this city and its imperial square. This would also show how the power of Rome had taken over other civilizations and countries.
Actually, if you are wondering just what it was that the Romans did in this square, there is a way to see this with your own eyes. When you find yourself visiting Sultanahmet Square, head over to the dikilitaş (obelisk) in the middle of the square and look closely at its marble pedestal. On all four sides of this pedestal you will see four different scenes from the Roman era. Look closely at the face of the pedestal that faces the Marmara University’s rector’s office; you will see Emperor Theodosius sitting in his kathisma (imperial box). Next to him is his wife, holding a rose close to her chest, as well as his sons Arcadius and Honorios, with whom he later shared Rome. Next to the family are the upper-class members of society holding the edges of their togas in their hands, as well as the protocol keepers. Behind them are Viking soldiers with their long hair. Below, you can see the people of the city. The imperial box in which the emperor is seated in this depiction was a box looking out onto the square from the palace, which was located where the Sultanahmet Mosque currently stands. But what exactly are all those people in the depiction looking at?
Something that was taking place in the Hippodrome, of course. All you need to do to understand what they were looking at is to glance downwards a little further, where you will see the Hippodrome in relief, with its famous Spina wall in the middle. There are obelisks standing on this wall, and around it, chariots racing to the finish line. So what will happen next? Someone will win the race and will receive a prize from the emperor. And if you want to see this next scene, head over to the next face of the pedestal, the one which faces the Sultanahmet Mosque, which will explain everything.
On this next face, the emperor is still next to his imperial box, but now he is standing. There is a crown on his head, and in his hand he holds a second crown, which will soon be placed on the head of the winner. Soldiers, members of the noble class, the people of the city — everyone is on their feet. In the front of the crowds are musicians playing their instruments and people dancing around them.
On this same face of the pedestal, under the relief, is a four-line inscription. These lines are written in ancient Greek. Also written on the other side in more modern Greek, they explain that Emperor Theodosius had this obelisk placed here with the help of Proclos — Proclos most likely being the man who was in charge of running the city at the time, akin to a municipal mayor. There is, however, a very important detail contained herein which one might not see if they were not looking carefully: The place where the name “Proclos” was written had been scraped off, with Proclos being inscribed again later. This is the same on both sides of the pedestal. But why? There was most likely some sort of presumed involvement by Proclos in some corrupt business, and his name was thus removed from any monuments or statues — a popular method of punishment at the time. But later, he was probably cleared of these charges, at which point his name was re-inscribed on the pedestal!
How was the obelisk erected?
This is a question that almost anyone who visits this square asks: How did this obelisk, brought in from Egypt, come to be raised here? Everything is actually explained on the third face of this stone. The side of the obelisk which faces the Hagia Sophia shows us the emperor, again in his kathisma. With similar crowds surrounding him, they are all looking at an activity taking place in the Hippodrome. This time though, it is the planting of the obelisk in the center of the square.
If we look downwards towards the base of the pedestal, incredibly, what we can see is the obelisk, but lying on its side. When we follow the relief along the pedestal, we see that the obelisk is on top of a mound of earth, quite near the pedestal. There are thick ropes around the stone monument. It is clear that through sheer human strength and muscle, this enormous obelisk was pulled up and placed in its final resting spot. At the same time though, it is clear that if anyone lets go of the ropes that are pulling it up, the stone could fall to the ground. Which is why the ropes are depicted as being connected to a lever system, and to cogs and wheels that go around it, and that as people turn the cogs, the obelisk was eased into its place.
So as you see, this momentous square has witnessed incredible amounts of history. But there is more, so much more, memories connected to this spot, from ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, to Alexander the Great and Ottoman Sultans Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Süleyman, not to mention their grand viziers and so many other people and places that are connected to this square.
What happened to the Hippodrome?
When Rome became Christianized, the Hippodrome began to lose its importance. At the same time, some of the architectural details from the Hippodrome began to be used on other structures. With the Latin invasion, it was looted and the square fell into disrepair. It never really recovered from this. Later, the palace of İbrahim Paşa was built on the final remains of the Hippodrome.
Difference between Hippodrome and Colosseum
It is important not to confuse the Hippodrome and the Colosseum. After all, colosseums, which you might have seen in the film “Gladiator,” were more arena-type structures built for fights, battles and theatrical shows. They are also more of a reflection of the single-man authority of Rome. Interestingly, the remains of a giant colosseum can be found near Erdek in Turkey; it was once an arena where scenes from battles at sea were shown.
Decking out the square
In order to make this square imperial and to reflect the power of Rome, important monuments and artifacts were brought in from all over the world. From Egypt came the obelisk and statues of Egyptian gods, from Greece came the “snake stone” from Delphi and from Rome came the statues of twins Romulus and Remus suckling milk from a wolf.
We lift our heads, trying to imagine days long ago in this square. There were seats where thousands could sit, providing a good view of the square and the Hippodrome. In fact, legend has it that once nearly 100,000 people could be seated here. This would mean that at one time, there were 25,000 stone seats here since one seat could hold four people. Alright, but what happened to all these seats? Only a few are left from the ancient Hippodrome and some of these can be seen in the gardens of the Sultanahmet Mosque.
Resource: Today’s Zaman