Sultanahmet Square

May 11, 2010 23:52 by haci

The first of the seven hills on the promontory has been the most important and dynamic part of the city in all ages. When the city was first founded, the acropolis was a typical Mediterranean trading center surrounded by city walls. This trading center was enlarged and rebuilt during Roman times. The most prominent buildings and monuments of the Roman era were built in the vicinity of the Hippodrome. Very few relics of these works have endured to the present day.

The imperial palace, known as the "Great Palace", used to spread over an area extending from the Hippodrome down to the seashore. Only the mosaic floor panel of a large hall remains from this palace today. The Augusteion, the most important square of the city, used to be here, and between the square and the main avenue there was the Millairium victory arch. The road used to extend as far as Rome and the stone marking the first kilometer was located here. The baths, temples, religious, cultural, administrative and social centers were all in this district. The area maintained its importance in the Byzantine and Turkish eras. Therefore some of the most important monuments of Istanbul such as the Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and the Basilica Cistern are all located around the Hippodrome.
The main streets in the city (those leading down to the harbor and those extending toward the city walls in the west) started at the Hippodrome and followed the slopes of the hills. The streets were lined with business establishments and mansions. The side streets were narrow and some were stepped. Some of the main streets had two-galleried sidewalks. There were spacious squares along the route and the side roads forking from these squares led to the city gates. The main avenue was called the Mese, and Via Egnetia, the road to Rome, started at the Golden Gate (Altmkapi).

Hippodrome means square for horses. The Hippodrome was built by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus towards the end of the 2nc* century and it was extended to an immense size by Constantine the Great. Some historians claim that it could seat thirty thousand spectators, while others put the figure at sixty thousand. The main attraction was the two or four-horse chariot races. In Roman and Byzantine times, the Hippodrome served as the city's main meeting, entertainment and sports center until the 10tn century. Like many of the other monuments in the city, it lost its importance with the Latin invasion in 1204. Besides the chariot races and gladiator fights with wild animals, there were performances by musicians, dancers and acrobats. There were many public holidays during Roman times to allow opportunities for all these activities.

The Hippodrome was shaped like a gigantic "U" and the imperial box, built like a balcony with four bronze horses on its roof, was situated on the eastern side. The sand-covered surface of the Hippodrome was divided into two by a low wall around which the chariots raced. On this wall stood monuments brought here from different corners of the empire and the statues of famous riders and their horses. Successful chariot drivers were very wealthy and could have anything they wanted. Originally there were 4 teams of drivers whose supporters' clubs formed large quarrelling factions and competed for position and prestige in the city. From time to time politics intermingled with the races, and the clashes between competing forces turned into bloody massacres.

The original ground level of the Hippodrome was 4 or 5 meters lower than the present surface. Three monuments have remained to our day: the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpent Column and the Walled Obelisk. In the Turkish era, too, festivals, ^ceremonies and performances used to be organized here. The Palace of Ibrahim Pasa opposite Sultan Ahmet Mosque is the sole example of the imposing private residences of the 16th century. This elegant building now houses the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art.

Only the round southern end of the vast Hippodrome has survived. This is a brick structure decorated with tall vaults. In later ages, all of the stone blocks and columns of the Hippodrome were used for building material. The ruins in the park to the right of the entrance to the Hippodrome belong to 4th" and 5th century private palaces, and a little further along there are the remains of the Byzantine Hagia Euphemia church.