Watching the modestly clothed couples with their children strolling through this park on a Sunday afternoon, it's hard to imagine the centuries of rowdy chariot races, ostentatious royal celebrations, and bloody massacres that took place on these lawns. During the month of Ramadan, the trees above the park are strung with white lights, and temporary tents and imitation Ottoman houses full of fast food are set up along the perimeter, while a pink-and-blue fiberglass elephant ride for toddlers wipes away any remaining stains of the Hippodrome's complex past.
Polo games and horse races were popular sports in the day. The first track was built in A.D. 203 by Septimus Severus out of the ruins of the city he sacked. Modeled on the Circus Maximus in Rome, the Hippodrome was enlarged by Constantine in A.D. 324 through the help of supporting vaults and hefty stone walls on the southern portion of the tract. The lower areas (the Spherion, or retaining wall down the hill at the obelisk end of the park) were used as stables and quarters for the gladiators.
Forty rows of seats accommodated up to 100,000 agitated supporters divided into merchant guilds that over time degenerated into political rivalries. These factions were known as the Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites. The Blues and Greens put aside their disagreements to demonstrate against the emperor in A.D. 532, which resulted in a riot with protesters screaming "Nika!" (Greek for victory). In what would become known as the Nika Revolt, much of the imperial palace and the original church of Ayasofya were destroyed. Justinian eventually regained control of his throne and ordered the massacre of some 30,000 to 40,000 people as punishment. With the arrival of the Fourth Crusade, the Hippodrome fell into disuse, eventually serving as a marble quarry for the Ottomans after their conquest of the city.
At the height of its splendor, the Hippodrome was crowned with a vast collection of trophies, statues, and monuments, either crafted by local artisans or lifted from the far corners of the empire.
At the southern end of the park is the Magnetic Column, also known as the Walled Obelisk, the Plaited Column, the Colossus, and the Column of Constantine. This column was erected in the 10th century A.D. under Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and was faced with plaques of gilded bronze and brass plates. At one time this obelisk was used to support a pulley system for raising and lowering awnings to protect the spectators from the sun. In 1204 the bronze and brass plates were removed and smelted by the Crusaders to mint coins.
Farther along is the Serpentine Column, a squat spiral standing 25% lower than its original 8m (26 ft.). The column was originally erected outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by the 31 Greek city-states to commemorate their victory over the Persians, and later brought to the city by Constantine. Made of melded bronze, the column represents three intertwining serpents and was crowned by three gold serpents' heads supporting a gold bowl, said to have been cast from the shields of the fallen Persian soldiers. The heads were lost until one resurfaced during the restoration of the Ayasofya, now in the Archaeology Museum. A second head was discovered and, like many ancient Turkish monuments, slithered its way to the British Museum in London.
The Obelisk of Tutmosis III is easily one of the most astounding feats of engineering in the city. This 13th-century-B.C. solid block of granite weighing over 60 tons was brought to Istanbul by Emperor Theodosius I from its place in front of the Temple of Luxor at Karnak, in Egypt. The four sides of granite are covered from top to bottom with hieroglyphics celebrating the glory of the Pharaoh and the god Horus. The monument was placed in the square in A.D. 390, but two-thirds of the original was lost during transport. This portion, standing over 20m (65 ft.) high, was erected in under 30 days, on a Roman base depicting bas-reliefs of Theodosius's family, friends, and triumphs at the races.
At the northern end of the Hippodrome is the Fountain of Wilhelm II (Alman Çesmesi), crafted in Germany and assembled in Istanbul to commemorate the emperor's visit to the city in 1895. Notice the initials of both the German monarch and Sultan Abdülhamid on the interior of the dome, inlaid with glittering golden mosaics.
The Hippodrome's crowning monument, long a distant memory of its original grandeur atop a disappeared imperial loggia, was a monumental statue of four bronze horses. In the Fourth Crusade's looting of the city in 1204, the monument was carried away to grace the facade of the Basilica of St. Marco in Venice. (Today, the ones on the facade are fake; the real ones are being protected from the elements in the Basilica of St. Marco's museum.)
Just to the north of the Hippodrome (on the corner where Divanyolu and Yerebatan Cad. converge) is the Million (or Milion) Stone, the point of departure for all roads leading out of the city and essentially ground zero for all measurements. The Milion Stone was modeled after the Milliarium Aureum, erected by Julius Caesar in the Forum in Rome. According to one tradition, the True Cross is said to have been brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople and placed by the Milion Stone during the reign of Constantine.