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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Sultanahmet Square (The Hippodrome) in Istanbul

What is Sultanahmet Square?

Sultanahmet Square is a square in the centre of historic Istanbul, also known as the Hippodrome, that was historically used for chariot racing.

Sultanahmet Square

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Sultanahmet Square History

During the Gezi Protests in 2013, there was a highly symbolic moment in which the rival fans of Istanbul football clubs Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray came together as one, joining hands and demonstrating in unison together against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The depth of the rivalry between fans of the so-called ‘big three’ is usually such that riot police and armed forces would be trying to keep them apart during derby matches, rather than facing them in a unified protest. Cynics might wonder how much this show of solidarity is connected to subsequent high-profile municipal and government investment in a new Istanbul club, Başakşehir.

Much as modern-day Turkish football supporters came together to rebel against political oppression in Taksim Square, Sultanahmet Square was historically the home of the even more politically important chariot racing teams of Constantinople. Originally known as the Hippodrome, this square hosted races between teams supported by opposing political groups: the Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites. The races at the Hippodrome were a rare opportunity for the public to have direct access to the emperor and were a venue for political discussion and action. Disputes could become riots, which could spill over into de facto civil wars within the city. The most prominent example, the Nika riots of 532, saw supporters of the Blues and Greens turn the Hippodrome and then the rest of the city into a war zone in which an estimated 30,000 died, and the second incarnation of the Hagia Sophia was destroyed.

As a prime venue in the centre of old Constantinople, the Hippodrome was surrounded by the Hagia Sophia, palaces, and other important buildings. The centre of the square itself was full of monuments collected by Theodosius the Great from around his empire. The sack and occupation of Byzantine Constantinople by the Latins of the Fourth Crusade resulted in much pillaging and precipitated many of the factors behind the decline and collapse of the Byzantine Empire. Amongst the monuments seized and trafficked back to Latin Europe by the Crusaders were the four Horses of Saint Mark in Venice, a monument to the history of the Hippodrome.

The condition of the remaining monuments ranges from excellent to heavily damaged. One of Theodosius’ additions, the Egyptian Obelisk of Thutmose III, is in excellent condition despite being around 3,500 years old and having been removed to Constantinople from Luxor in three pieces. The Serpent Column, a sacrificial tripod from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is rather less impressive. The serpents’ heads and the top third of the column were destroyed in 1700, and the golden bowl supposed to sit at the top of the monument appears never to have arrived.

The 21st-century Sultanahmet Square contains a more recent monument, a fountain gifted to the Ottomans in 1900 to commemorate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Whilst the square’s contemporary name comes from the adjacent Sultan Ahmed (or Blue) Mosque.

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