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Hippodrome of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey)

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Site of ancient hippodrome in Sultanahmet Meydanı square, Istanbul, Turkey.

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      09.06.2012 18:39
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      A pleasant (and free) historic open space close to the Blue Mosque

      In Istanbul one is constantly forced to reconsider the meaning of 'old'. Buildings are seldom what they seem - often much older or much newer than they appear at first glance. The Hagia Sophia is a classic example - how old is it really and which bits are original and which reconstructed? One of my favourite areas in the old city is the Hippodrome, a place where few things are really what they seem to be and an area you could walk through without even realising its significance.

      The Hippodrome area runs beside the Blue mosque, parallel to the line between the mosque and the Hagia Sophia and today it appears at first glance to be just another pleasant, sunny, open space lined with shops, scattered with touts selling postcards and ringed by roads which are not too busy for such a big city. What you're actually seeing are some of the remains of the Roman Hippodrome - the place where they held horse and chariot races. The modern roads roughly ape the route of those long forgotten horses and in the area inside the roads you'll find a number of interesting things to stop and look at.

      Today the area is known as Sultan Ahmet square since it's close to the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque. Roughly two meters below the current road surface lay the Roman Hippodrome which was first constructed by Emperor Septimus Severus around 200 AD and then rebuilt more than a century later by the more famous Emperor Contastine in the early 300s. Up the centre - or the 'spine' - of the racetrack, there are several monuments to stop and see. Most of these sit below the current road surface in pits cut into the surrounding land.

      At the Hagia Sophia end of the Hippodrome, you'll find the neo-Byzantine German Fountain - a lavishly tiled, octagonal shaped structure with a domed roof. This was originally described to me as a 'sherbet fountain' - a place where people could come to drink sherbet on high days and holidays, probably donated by a local big wig. I've no idea if that's entirely true but it's certainly an unusual construction with a covered ball-shaped inner area with a lid which presumably held the water or other drinks. It's a fountain where you can't see any water, for sure. This building was built back in 1900 to mark the visit to the city of German Kaiser Wilhelm II two years earlier and to recognise the alliance between the Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. It was built in Germany and then sent to Istanbul to be reconstructed on the site.

      The other monuments are much older. There are two obelisks and a metal pillar at the far end of the Hippodrome. The first you come to when walking from the fountain is the Obelisk of Theodosius which was installed in the Hippodrome in 390 by Theodosius the Great. He brought the much earlier Egyptian column from Luxor where it had stood by the Temple of Karnak since 1490 BC but the obelisk got sliced into three pieces because it was so big and only the top most section was put in place. It stands on top of a rather worn but much newer carved base which shows figures watching the chariot races and looks to the eyes of the ignorant (well me at least) to be much newer and in much better condition than the base. In fact this Egyptian obelisk is around 3500 years old and stands on a base that's around 1800 years newer than it.

      The next monument along the spine of the Hippodrome is the 'serpentine' column, an ancient bronze column of intertwined brass bars which was originally part of a monument built to commemorate the Battle of Plataea in 479BC. It has been in place in the Hippodrome since Emperor Constantine ordered that it be brought to Constantinople from its previous home in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. It's easy to dismiss it as 'just a lump of metal' and to not realise it's nearly two and a half thousand years old.

      The second of the obelisks is the 'walled obelisk' which was built in 10th century, making it practically brand new by comparison with its neighbours. It was originally covered in brass plaques and must have been very impressive but the plaques were stolen long ago.

      On one side of the Hippodrome you'll find the Palace of Ibrahim Pasa which was built in 1523 and is now the home of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Whilst this is much later than most of the Hippodrome monuments, I mention it in this review because it's one of my favourite Istanbul museums, because it contains relics which date back to Roman times and because it has a cafe terrace with fabulous views of the Blue Mosque if you get there early or late in the year when the trees that line the Hippodrome are not in full leaf.
      The Hippodrome area is a lovely and mostly peaceful part of the Old City. So long as you make it clear to the postcard and toy sellers that you're not interested, you can spend a pleasant time here, imagining the roar of the horses hooves, the cries of the crowd and a very different city called Constantinople instead of today's Istanbul.


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