The Hippodrome (Turkish Sultanahmet Meydanı) was a circus that was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is called Sultanahmet Square, with very few fragments of the original structure surviving. The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, 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.
In 203 AD the emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city of Byzantium, expanded its walls and provided it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainment. In 324 AD, the emperor Constantine the Great decided to move the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which soon became known as Constantinople, the City of Constantine. He 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 450 m long and 130 m wide. Its stands were capable of holding 100,000 spectators.
Constantinople never really recovered from its sack during the Fourth Crusade and even though the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, by that time, the Hippodrome had fallen into ruin. 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. The Hippodrome was used for various occasions such as the circumcision ceremony of the sons of Sultan Ahmet III.
To improve the image of the new capital, Constantine and his successors, especially Theodosius the Great, brought works of art from all over the empire to adorn it. Among these was the Tripod of Plataea, now known as the Serpent Column, 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. The top was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl was destroyed or stolen during the Fourth Crusade. The serpent heads were destroyed as late as the end of the 17th century, as many Ottoman miniatures show they were intact in the early centuries following the Turkish conquest of the city.
The Serpent Column has one of the longest literary histories of any object surviving from Greek and Roman antiquity — its origin is not in doubt and it is at least 2,490 years old.
Obelisk of Thutmose III
The Obelisk of Theodosius (Turkish Dikilitaş) is the ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III re-erected in the Hippodrome by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 390 AD. Carved from pink granite, it was originally erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Thutmose 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 3,500 years in astonishingly good condition. The marble pedestal had bas-reliefs dating to the time when the obelisk was re-erected in Constantinople. On one face Theodosius I is shown offering the crown of victory to the winner in the chariot races, framed between arches and Corinthian columns, with happy spectators, musicians and dancers assisting in the ceremony. In the bottom right of this scene is the water organ of Ctesibius and on the left another instrument
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 they were sacked by Latin troops in the Fourth Crusade. The stone core of this monument also survives, known as the Walled Obelisk.
The German Fountain ("The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain"), an octagonal domed fountain in neo-Byzantine style, which was built by the German government in 1900 to mark the German emperor Wilhelm II's visit to Istanbul in 1898, is located at the northern entrance to the Hippodrome area, right in front of the Blue Mosque.