History of Sultanahmet Square
Roman and Byzantine Period – Hippodrome
The Imperial stand was situated on the site of what is now the “German Fountain”. Originally it was an arena for wild beasts then a ditch was built around it to protect the spectators from these animals. Later when such games were abandoned a long terrace (called the Spina) was built in the center, upon which were set up the Dikilitas (Obelisk), Burmalı Sütun (Spiral Column), and statues showing a man in combat with a lion, a dying bull, a Hercules by the sculptor Lisippos of Chios, an unruly horse, and an eagle grasping a snake.
The hippodrome, which was 118 m. wide and 370 m. long had high walls. It had a capacity of 100.000 spectators, and had entrances through both of the long walls and also the Antiochus Portal, below the Emperor’s Loggia. Forty rows of seats supported by arcades lined the arena.
The stairs to the tiers and the circular promenade above them were decorated with statues. The Emperor Wilhelm Fountain (Alman Cesmesi) now occupies the site of what was Emperor’s Lodge, from which the Emperor and his court would watch the games. Here he rested, dined, and received visitors.
The gallery in front of this lodge was tower-like and decorated with four bronze statues by Lisippos of Chios. The silken banners which adorned the Imperial Lodge as protection against the sun were seemingly the augurs of the games, and after preparations were completed, the spectators would gather in the hippodrome at an early hour to watch the combat between the greens and the blues, taking sides in each combat, and fiercely supporting their champions, even to the extent of fighting amongst themselves. It is said that at this stage the emperor would retire to his place along a raised traverse until the uproar had died down. Eventually, these games were forbidden, and the hippodrome was used only on the days of the festival.
Hagia Sophia was built in 537 which as the largest Christian church of the Byzantine Empire and the eatern Orthodox Church. This important building takes place in Sultanahmet Square too. It was converted to a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul, 1453. Then it was became a museum with the decision of Turkish Republic in 1935. Finally, it is returned a mosque in 2020.
There are Basilica Cistern and Binbirdirek Cistern next to Sultanahmet Square. There are 224 pillars in the 1000-pole cistern and it is estimated to have been built in the 4th century. The cistern that sinks on the ground consists of 336 columns and was built in 527-565 AD.
There was a Latin Occupation in Istanbul from 1204 to 1261 which Istanbul was governed by Byzantium before and later the occupation. ByzaIt is believed that during the Latin occupation of Istanbul, the statues of the hippodrome were torn down, metal plaques melted down for re-use and the finest works carried to the west. For example; four bronze horses now decorating the facade of St. Marco in Venice. By the time of the Turkish conquest of Constantinopolis (now Istanbul), the once grandiose hippodrome was largely abandoned and now in ruins.
In 1453 May, with the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet II who will be named as ‘the Conqurer’, Istanbul was governed by Ottoman Empire. Then Istanbul will be the capital of Empire, again.
There are important buildings left from Ottoman times, too. The most important building is Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) which you can find detailed information about it in our website.
Ibrahim Pasha Palace was built in the 16th century. It is located in the west of the Hippodrome, opposite the Sultanahmet Mosque. The Palace is the only example of rich and typical private palaces that have survived. This beautiful building is open to visitors as the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
The round south end of the hippodrome remains today. This is a brick structure equipped with large arches. In the following periods, all of the stone blocks and columns of the Hippodrome were used in other buildings. 4-5 century in the park to the right of the entrance to the hippodrome. There are the ruins of a private palace belonging to the palace and just ahead of the remains of the Byzantine Church of Aya Öfemiya. Basilica and Binbirdirek Cisterns were restored twice in the Ottoman period. It is now open to the public for cultural activities.
In the middle of the square is the Wilhelm Fountain (Alman Cesmesi), which was built as a souvenir of Kayzer Wilhelm’s visit. In the west of the square is the Istanbul Courthouse.
In the Ottoman period, various festivals and performances were organized in Sultanahmet Square. The circumcision ceremonies and festivities of the Princes that lasted for forty days and nights were held here. Also, the Janissary revolts took place in the Ibrahim Pasha Palace and neighborhood in 1525. Another example is Halide Edip who was an important novelist, nationalist and political leader of women rights, made a famous speech against the Istanbul occupation in the Sultanahmet Square, in 1920. And now, in Republic of Turkey, this square is the most important touristic area in Istanbul.
Important Historical Columns in The Sultanahmet Square
Obelisk of Theodosius – Dikilitas
Two obelisks facing one another are still to be seen in Sultanahmet Square. One of these, which is inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics was brought to Istanbul from Egypt by Emperor Theodosius and set up in its present position in the hippodrome. It was given the name the column of Theodosius and is 18.45 m. in height, 24.87 m. including the base. It is constructed of Syenite porphyry, weighing 200 tons, which is supported on a marble plinth measuring 2.75 x 2.20 m.
The plinth is decorated with bas-reliefs showing the life of Theodosius. The northern face shows the Byzantine emperor Arcadius together with his wife, Eudoxia, seated in the Catizma of the hippodrome. The western face shows the Emperor Theodosius, enthroned, together with his wife and his children, Arcadius and Honorius. Before them are the defeated enemies of the empire. On the eastern face, the Emperor Theodosius is shown watching the games together with his two children, while on the southern face, the Emperor Theodosius is shown with his two sons on one side and on his left Valentinian II, watching a chariot race.
This column was transported by sea, then, brought to its present site on a specially constructed road, and according to an inscription was set up in 32 days with the help of scaffolding. The hieroglyphics are to the glory of the Pharoah Tutmosis II who had the obelisk set up in lower Egypt in 1547 B.C., in the city of Hierapolis.
In brief, the content of these hieroglyphics is as follows: on the eastern side, “Tutmosis III, of the XVIII Dynasty, master of Upper and Lower Egypt, on the thirtieth anniversary of his reign, as the conqueror of the seas and rivers, has set up this obelisk for countless anniversaries to come”.
On the southern face, it reads; “With the strength and approval of the god Horus, Tutmosis”. “Tutmosis, the all-powerful and all-just son of the Sun, ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt, has penetrated as far as Mesopotamia, at the head of his armies, has shown his might on the Mediterranean, and has fought great battles”.
On the western face it is written, “Tutmosis, son of the Sun, who bears the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt on his brow through the strength, might and wealth of Horos, after paying tribute to the god Amon-Ra built this work for his father, the god Amon-Ra, that it may spread light like the rays of the sun to mankind”.
On the northern face, it reads “Tutmosis paid tribute to the god determined to enlarge the borders of his country as far as Mesopotamia”.
The Walled Obelisk – Orme Dikilitas
At the rear part of Sultanahmet Square is the column set up by Constantine VII. The obelisk, of coarsely-hove blocks, is 32 m. in height, and formerly was reputedly decorated with bronze plaques depicting the victories of Basil I, the grandfather of Constantine (867-886) and was crowned with a sphere. Unfortunately, however, these bronze artifacts were said to have been melted down by the Latins for use in the mint.
Serpentine Column – Yilanli Sutun
This column was brought to Istanbul by Constantine the Great from the temple of Apollo at Delphi. It had been presented to the temple of Apollo by the 31 Greek cities as a token of gratitude for their defeat of the Persians in the battle of Platte, during the Medic wars.
A golden vase was set on top of the column, and the column was in the form of three snakes interwound and was 8 m. in height including the three snake-heads which appear towards the top of the column at a height of 6.5 m.
Records show us that these snake-heads were in place at the beginning of the 16th century after which they were broken off. One of the heads is to be found in the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul.
Constantine’s Column – Cemberlitas
The column of Cemberlitas was situated in the old Forum of Constantine the Great. This column, which is 57 m. in height, was brought from the Apollo Temple in Rome and set up here. It is believed that originally a statue of Apollo greeting the dawn surmounted it, which was replaced by Constantine the Great in 330 with a statue of himself.
The column was made of eight porphyry drums which were wreathed with laurel. The statue of Constantine surmounting it was later replaced with a statue of Theodosius, which was dislodged by lightning in 1081.
The column was restored by Alexius I Comnenus and an inscription engraved on the capital with a gilded cross in place of the statue. Later, during the reign of Mustafa II (1695-1704), after a severe fire damaged it, the sultan had a layer of stone added to the base and iron hoops fixed around it, taking its present name from this feature, -the “hooped column”- Cemberlitas.