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All you ever wanted to know about Istanbul's Hippodrome

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 2/19/2010 12:00:00 AM | GÜL DEMIR and NİKİ GAMM

While the Hippodrome was central to Byzantine social life, the Hippodrome continued to exist after the 1453 conquest because the Ottomans also saw the square as a perfect place to hold their own unique horse-related games. Thanks to a recent exhibition and accompanying book, people can see what the Hippodrome may have looked like in ancient times, along with its development in subsequent eras

Anyone who has traipsed around Istanbul’s historic peninsula on the way to the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque cannot have failed to come across the large, rectangular stretch of land that constitutes the Hippodrome.

For decades this space was nothing more than a dusty plain with a few decorative, almost nondescript pillars devoid of explanation. It was known as the Hippodrome where the ancient Romans and Byzantines used to have horse races (in modern times made famous by Charlton Heston in the movie “Ben Hur,” an adaptation from the book written by Lew Wallace, the United States’ ambassador to the Ottomans in the 19th century) and gladiatorial games of varying sorts. The square was also renowned for its political riots that nearly unseated Emperor Justinian, builder of the Hagia Sophia.

The square survived after the Ottoman conquest of 1453 because the new rulers saw the value of using the space for their own games, usually played on horseback. As a result, the square acquired the name Atmeydanı, or Horse Square. In addition, parades and festivities, such as those depicted in the miniatures of the 1582 Surname-i Murat III, were also held there. The space further played a part in political actions taken against later sultans because it was a convenient place for rebels to gather.

Now, thanks to the generosity of the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation, the Istanbul Research Institute and the Pera Museum, people can see what the Hippodrome may have looked like in its heyday and its progression through the various eras thereafter.

"Hippodrome/Atmeydanı: A Stage for Istanbul's History" is an exhibition that opened this week at the museum and will provide a start-to-finish pictorial tour of the space until April 18.

In tandem with the exhibition, a splendid, two-volume set of books has also been published in both Turkish and English under the same name as the exhibition. The set includes a number of articles related to the Hippodrome, as well as a catalog for the exhibition. The book certainly ranks among the most outstanding, comprehensive publications ever published for an exhibition and is one of those collections of material that provide all the information you ever wanted to know about the Hippodrome and likely much more that you have not even thought about.

In the foreword to the set, Suna, İnan and İpek Kıraç pay tribute to the Istanbul Research Institute whose research departments for the Ottoman and Republican periods facilitated the work. “We are happy to honor this very special and colorful square of Istanbul, which has hosted a variety of consequential incidents during the foundation of the Republic, with this exhibition that opens in 2010, the year Istanbul becomes the Culture Capital of Europe.”

The material has been collected under the general editorship of Brigitte Pitarakis, a researcher and writer on the Byzantine period. Because one can only see the masonry obelisk – whose origin is unknown – the Serpent Column and the Egyptian obelisk today, she says few can imagine the splendor and size of the original Hippodrome.

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was used for horse races between factions although this practice was discontinued under the Ottomans, who preferred to play cirit (a form of polo).

Volume one of the research deals particularly with the Byzantine period and reconstructions of what the Hippodrome might have resembled.

Pitarakis says much of the Hippodrome was still standing when the Ottomans conquered the city – apart from many metal statues and other ornamentation that had been melted down during the conquest of the city by 13th century Crusaders.

The books divides the Byzantine period into five sections: Imperial Power and the Arena of the New Rome, Entertainment at the Hippodrome; The Architecture and Archaeology of the Hippodrome; Ancient Myths and Urban Legends: the Statues of the Euripos; and Rediscovering the Hippodrome. The last section deals with the accounts of Western travelers between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Regarding the Istanbul Research Institute and Pera Museum, Pitarakis says, “[The institutes] seek to undertake exhibitions that highlight the major buildings, monuments and spaces of Istanbul that span the Byzantine and Ottoman periods and continue to make a significant contribution to the cultural richness of the Republic of Turkey.”

Meanwhile, part of the book’s visual material was provided by A. Tayfun Öner through 3-D representations of what the Hippodrome might have resembled in its former brilliance based on remains from the area found at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and the garden of the Blue Mosque.  

Öner worked with available archaeological reports, recent surveys, visual records, and the literary contributions of Byzantine writers and historians and travelers to ancient Istanbul.

His representations are so realistic that one could almost imagine being right in the middle of the Hippodrome – requiring only a few charioteers and a roaring crowd to whisk one back in time.

In fact, there are small statutes that represent some of the people that might have performed in the arena, as well as frescoes depicting charioteers in a church in Kiev.

If one thus fails to see the exhibition, there is always the two-volume set and with outstanding reproductions of colored miniatures and photographs.

The only problem is that each of the two is heavy and the thought of taking them around the exhibition is rather daunting. Nonetheless, the tomes are marvelous reference books that will stir up many memories of Istanbul’s historic peninsula.

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