During the restoration works carried out in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, i.e., the former İbrahim Pasha Palace, an unusual discovery was made. The restoration was conducted between October 2012 and October 2014, and that is when the excavations on the museum's ground floor enabled the discovery of the vaulted structure. It once belonged to the tiers of the west side of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. After the conservation works were done by the experts from Istanbul Restoration and Conservation Central Laboratory, the ruins became a part of the museum's exhibition space.
History of the Hippodrome
The first Hippodrome in this location had been constructed before the city of Byzantium was renamed as Constantinople. In 203 CE, Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt this city and added an arena for chariot races. However, the remains of the Hippodrome that can be seen today, date back to the times of Emperor Constantine the Great who decided to move the seat of the government from Rome to Byzantium. Although there is no archaeological evidence to support the claim, it is widely accepted that the new Hippodrome was erected during a comprehensive reconstruction programme in the years 330-337 CE.
Throughout the Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) periods, the Hippodrome remained the social centre of the city. It was the arena where the famous racing clubs competed, including the Blues and the Greens. Their rivalry even led to the bloody event known as the Nika Riot of 532 when an estimated 30 thousand people were killed. Even the ascent of Christianity did not stop the races and entertainment held in the Hippodrome as they lasted until 1261.
Between 1261 and 1453, Constantinople never recovered after the Latin sack of 1204 and the hippodrome fell into ruin, pillaged by the Venetians.
After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Hippodrome was used as the largest square of the city. The Turks also used the Hippodrome as the quarry of construction materials. It became to be known as the Horse Square (Atmeydanı) and witnessed numerous ceremonies organised by the sultans, such as the circumcision ceremony of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III. It also held horse races and javelin throwing competitions as well as several uprisings.
The architecture of the Hippodrome
The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a U-shaped racing course, approximately 429 meters long and 119 meters wide. The total capacity of its stands is estimated to be 30,000 spectators. The Kathisma (Emperor's Lodge) was on the eastern side of the track as it could be accessed directly from the Great Palace.
On the northern end of the Hippodrome, there was the structure called the Carceres, the monumental gate that enabled the entry and exit of the chariots in twelve lanes. Its top was once decorated with the bronze statues of the horses that were later taken to Venice as the result of the disastrous Fourth Crusade and the subsequent sack of Constantinople in 1204. These four gilded horses, are now known the Horses of Saint Mark, and can still be seen in Venice.
The Sphendone. i.e., the curved tribune of the U-shaped structure stood at the southern end of the Hippodrome. Its lower part has been preserved to our times and can be seen from Nakilbent Street.
Finally, the Spina was erected in the middle of the racing track to divide the racecourse. It was around two meters wide and three or four meters high. It was originally decorated with many monuments and statues, mentioned in the chronicles from the Byzantine period. However, only three structures can be seen today: the Serpentine Column, the Obelisk of Theodosius, and the Walled Obelisk.
History of the Hippodrome excavations
The first person to conduct the archaeological excavations in the area of the Hippodrome of Constantinople was the British deputy consul and archaeologist, Charles Newton. In 1855, he focussed on the area of the Serpentine column and discovered an inscription that shed some light on this artefact. It actually indicated that the column was brought to Constantinople from the Apollo Temple in Delphi.
The excavations of the Hippodrome were continued by the British soldiers who arrived at the city in 1865 because of the Crimean War. In this period, the pedestals of the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Walled Obelisk were found.
After a prolonged break, the archaeological studies of the Hippodrome were continued in the period between the World Wars by the German archaeologist Theodor Wiegand and the Swiss scholar Ernest Mamboury. Mamboury devoted his life to the discovery of Byzantine structures of Istanbul, and he lived in the city for more than forty years until his death in 1953. The work of Wiegand and Mamboury was aimed at the determination of the size and architecture of the Hippodrome.
At the same time, and more precisely between 1927 and 1928, Stanley Casson, a distinguished art scholar and British Army officer, conducted the studies at the western end of the Hippodrome, near Terzihane Street. His work was continued in 1950 by Rüstem Duyuran who acted on behalf of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
In 1993, an area in front of the Sultanahmet Mosque was bulldozed to make room for a public building. Not surprisingly, several rows of seats and columns from the Hippodrome were uncovered. Sadly, the archaeological excavations did not follow the discovery. Instead, the columns and seats were taken to the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.
To see the underground remains of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, it is necessary to visit the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. It is open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (from April to September) or 5:00 pm (from October to March). The museum is closed on Mondays. As of 2019, the ticket costs 42 TL.
The museum is located at Sultanahmet Square, which shape still preserves the oval shape of the ancient Hippodrome. The museum is situated opposite the iconic Sultan Ahmet (Bleu) Mosque.