Sultanahmet Square: Hippodrome of Costantinople, what to see, do

Sultanahmet Square, also known as Hippodrome, is one of the most popular tourist zones and historical places in Istanbul. Initially, it was a circus that served as the sporting and social hub of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Sultanahmet Square is surrounded by the world famous sights of Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and the Blue Mosque. It should be on the top of your list of places to visit in Istanbul.

Info & History

The term hippodrome is derived from the Greek words hippos (horse) and dromos (path or way), if you’re wondering. Hippodromes were prevalent features of Greek cities during the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine eras, and horse racing and chariot racing were renowned pastimes in the ancient world. Although the Hippodrome is commonly associated with Constantinople’s glory days as an imperial capital, it actually dates back from that period. As a result, it is also known as Atmeydani (“Horse Square”) in Turkish.

The first Hippodrome was founded when Byzantium was a provincial town of reasonable importance. Emperor Septimius Severus reconstructed and enlarged the city’s walls in AD 203, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races, and other entertainment.

Following his victory at the nearby Battle of Chrysopolis in AD 324, Emperor Constantine the Great decided to refound Byzantium, renaming it Nova Roma (New Rome). This name did not go down well, and the city was soon christened Constantinople or the City of Constantine. Constantine greatly expanded the city, with the renovation of the Hippodrome being one of his major projects.

The Hippodrome of Constantine was approximately 450 m (1,476 ft) long and 130 m (427 ft) wide. The northern end was marked by the starting gates, while the southern end was marked by the sphendone (a curved tribune of the U-shaped structure, the lower part of which still exists). The spina (the racecourse’s middle barrier) was adorned with several monuments, including the monolithic obelisk, the construction of which is featured in relief carvings on its base.

Although the structures are no longer standing, the remnants of the massive Hippodrome can still be seen if you look closely. Much more of the Hippodrome’s ruins could still be found beneath Sultanahmet Square’s parkland.

There used to be four horse statues at the entry to the magnificent Hippodrome. Because they were stolen during the Latin invasion, you can see them today in front of St. Mark’s Basilica.

What to see on the site?

Sultanahmet Square is the main point of the Sultanahmet district. You’ll see many tourists admiring the surroundings or taking photos in the square which proves us how admirable this place is.

You can see the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpentine Column, the Colossus or Column of Costantine Porphyrgenitus, the German Fountain on the site of the Sultanahmet Square, which dates back to the 4th century hippodrome from the Byzantium era.

These three monuments are all lined up along the center of the ancient hippodrome area that the ancient racers turn around.

The Egyptian Obelisk

This the the most famous of the three erected monuments in the middle of the Sultanahmet square. The monument was brought from the Egypt in 390. It originally dates back to 1450 BC, made for the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutmosis III.

It stands on a marble pedestal and depicts the Byzantine Emperor Teodosius I, as well as audience watching the horse races.

The Colossus

This is a 32 meters very impressive column. The brass plates that covers the top of the column and the bronze sphere on the top were used by the Latins during 1200s.

The Serpentine Column

This is a very unusual monument that adorns the square. The column is a talisman brought from the Delphi Temple in Apollo for protecting the city from the insect invasion. There you will see 3 snakes that are intertwined and heads are severed. You can see the only remaining snake-head exhibited at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

The German Fountain

Historical German Fountain in Hippodrome, Sultanahmet square against blue sky in Istanbul, Turkey

German Fountain is one of the most beautiful historical fountains that should be visited in the square. Despite the fact that it was built by the Germans, the fountain is heavily influenced by Islamic architecture.

What to see surrounding Sultanahmet Square?

Surrounding Sultanahmet square, you are able to se one of the top visited sights of Istanbul. See below:

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, also known as the Church of the Holy Wisdom or the Church of the Divine Wisdom, is an ancient Byzantine church in Istanbul and one of the world’s great greatest architectural works, as well as accepted as the 8th wonder of the world.

Famous Hagia Sophia in the evening sun rays, Istanbul, Turkey

Being converted into a mosque by Fatih Sultan Mehmet after Istanbul’s conquest in 1453, it was than converted to a museum in 1935 and finally in 2020 it was declared as a mosque.

Find about more on Hagia Sophia

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace is the Ottoman Empire’s true essence. Fatih Sultan Mehmet, fresh from his conquest of Constantinople, constructed Topkapı Saray as his primary house between 1460 and 1478.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

Topkapi Palace is the world’s biggest and oldest surviving Palace and the repository of numerous artifacts. Among them is one of the world’s largest diamonds, the most precious Islamic relics, a map with the earliest portrayal of America, high-quality Chinese porcelain, rare Islamic gilded miniatures, and calligraphy examples from numerous Muslim Asian empires. The artifacts are a sight to behold.

Find about more on Topkapi Palace Museum

Sultanahmet Blue Mosque

The Sultanahmet Blue Mosque is an Ottoman-era historical majestic mosque in Istanbul. It was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmed I. Ahmed’s tomb, a madrasah, and a hospice are all located on its Külliye. It is a functioning mosque that also attracts a large number of tourists. It is closed to the tourists during prayer time.

Blue Mosque at Sultanahmet Square on Ramadan in Istanbul, Turkey. At the end of the day the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar.

The mosque’s interior walls are adorned with hand-painted blue tiles, and at night, the mosque is bathed in blue as lights frame the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. It is a unique structure that has brought a new perspective to mosque culture which showcases one of the most successful examples of Turkish-Islamic architecture.

Find about more on Blue Mosque

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is situated in the palace built by the order of Süleyman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasa (c.1493–1536). It has a collection of about 40,000 relics spanning from the 7th century to the present and exhibitions of fine art, crafts, and Turkish domestic life as it evolved from nomad’s tent to modern home.

Hurrem Sultan Hammam

The ancient Hurrem Sultan Hammam (Turkish Bath) (1556-1557), built between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, was constructed by Architect Sinan at the request of the Hurrem Sultan, the famed wife of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It is Turkey’s largest historical hammam and was erected on the site of Zeuxippus’ ancient public baths (100-200 AD).

Hagia Sophia Hurrem Sultan Bathhouse in Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul City, Turkey

The operational Turkish bath (separate baths for men and women) provides a variety of hammam packages that include different massage therapies and rituals. There is also an outdoor cafe and restaurant where you may relax while strolling through Sultanahmet.

Getting to Sultanahmet Square Tips

Topkapi Palace is located in Sultanahmet neighborhood, which belongs to Fatih district. See on google map.

For those coming from Taksim, Galata or Besiktas areas, can take the Kabatas-Bagcilar T1 tram line passing through Kabatas, Karakoy, and get off at Sultanahmet stop.

For those on the Asian side of Istanbul, can take the ferry to Eminonu or take the Marmaray line from Uskudar and get off at the Sirkeci stop. And than you can take the Kabatas-Bagcilar tram line passing through Eminönü and Sirkeci stops, and get off at Sultanahmet stop.

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