Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani) earlier known as the ‘Hippodrome of Constantinople’ was the social and the sports hub of Constantinople. Presently, only a few parts of the original structure survive. Another name for this place in the city of Istanbul is ‘Atmeydani’ which means Horse Square in Turkish.
Coming from the Greek word ‘hippos’ (horse) and ‘dromos (way), it means a place for horse racing which was a favorite pastime in the Roman, Hellenistic and Byzantine period. Apart from horse racing, chariot racing was another favorite pastime of the ancient people.
The place which is now under the shadow of Sultanahmet Mosque was a favorite venue for horse-racing in the Hippodrome during the Byzantine era. Originally built by Septimus Severus, the hippodrome was further expanded by Contantine the Great in 203. According to some historians, the hippodrome had the capacity for thirty thousand spectators, while some claim the sitting capacity to be sixty thousand.
Chariot races were the hot attraction of the hippodrome in the Byzantine and Roman period. Moreover, the place was not just a sports hub but also the central point for all entertainment, cultural and political meetings and events. A number of animal fights were held at this place. However, after the 10th century, the place lost its past glory especially in 1204 when the Latins invaded the city.
The Hippodrome was originally built in U shape while the imperial box was built as a balcony to accommodate the audiences. Atop the roof of the imperial box were four bronze horses. The hippodrome was divided into two parts by a low lying wall which exhibited important monuments brought from various corners of the empire. The place was a venue for races between wealthy chariot drivers till politics intervened with the game resulting in bloody clashes between the members of the races drivers. Hence, this resulted in a number of civil wars within the city including the bloody Nika riots in 532 when nearly 30,000 people lost their lives. Apart from loss of lives, a number of famous historical buildings also got devastated including the Hagia Sophia.
The present ground level is higher by 4 to 5 metres than the original ground level of the Hippodrome. The Sultanahmet Square has three monuments namely the Serpent Column, the Egyptian Obelisk and the Milyonbar (the Walled Obelisk). A number of ceremonies and coronations were held at this place in the Turkish period. Today, it is considered to be a favorite tourist attraction in the city and houses many restaurants and hotels.
At present, the vast Hippodrome is nowhere to be found as just the southern end of this great historical monument survives now. This has been decorated with vaults.