Thursday, July 17, 2008

Searching for the Hippodrome

Prior to our arrival to Istanbul I had read about the Hippodrome and its uses as a social center for commerce, politics, and entertainment. Therefore, when planning to visit the Hippodrome I went with expectations of seeing the ruins of stands to seat the estimated 40,000 people who could attend along with gated off remains of the track itself. Instead I was unpleasantly surprised to see in place of the horse track there was a busy street packed with cars honking their horns with frustration, no evidence of stadium seating, and local shops and restaurants surrounding what used to be one of the most important centers of Constantine’s Constantinople.

As a lover of classical history I should get used to this scenery surrounding once important monuments otherwise I will spend the rest of my life being disappointed. In such a busy city as Istanbul, there have been very few opportunities to excavate such a large area as the Hippodrome due to the rising population and need for homes and highways. The few pieces of evidence of the much desired seating remains were found in 1993 during the building of a basement-style public restroom, but due to the need of the restroom in the tourist center, the remains were removed and put on display at a museum.

The three monuments that still stand in the spina of the Hippodrome are so different in every aspect imaginable: time of construction, materials, subject matter, and location. This was the most exciting part of our visit because we had the chance to experience three different types of monumental art without having to travel thousands of miles. The Serpent Column, built to commemorate the Greek victory in the Persian Wars, was brought from Delphi. The Column of Constantine was built in its now existing location and was once covered in bronze with a statue depicting the emperor as the god Apollo. Because of destruction from the Crusades this column has suffered a lot of deterioration. Therefore, and not surprisingly, my favorite monument at the Hippodrome today is the Egyptian Obelisk from Luxor. It is the most well preserved being made of granite, the oldest monument being about 3,500 years old, and the most impressive considering what is on display is only the top third of the original obelisk being carried to Constantinople.

The experience of the Hippodrome was not what I expected but it was culturally and historically moving. As much as I appreciate the modern day city of Istanbul I still find it a great loss to our historical knowledge that the city never ceased growing and the remains of many monuments and buildings are meters below the Sultan Café and Yerebetan St.

Bassett, Sarah Guberti. "The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 45. (1991), 87-96, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1291694 .

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