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The Hippodrome occupies a very prominent position throughout the history of Istanbul. For many centuries the very popular horse races were held here. To this day, the Turks refer to this as 'Horse Square' (At Meydani), although it no longer has anything to do with horses. Today the square is a popular meeting place for locals and destination for tourists.
The oval shape is still clearly recognizable. The square was a popular horse racing venue, though for centuries it was also the stage of fights, from the general public to fights between citizens and rulers. Today's park (with free Wi-Fi) seems far removed from those days, yet history is everywhere. The square features various unique sculptures and offers views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
The Hippodrome is almost a living history book with objects from different periods. The Serpent Column, which dates back to around 500 BC, depicts 3 intertwined snakes. Nearby is the even older Egyptian obelisk from 1500 BC; Roman Emperor Constantine brought this obelisk to Constantinople, as the city was known then. A more recent monument, located on the edge of the square, is the fountain donated by German Emperor Wilhelm II when he visited the city in 1898.
To discover all the secrets of the Hippodrome you have to go deep – literally. Underneath the expansive square is a huge water reservoir, which from year 532 onwards supplied fresh water to the palace of Emperor Justinian. Descend 52 steps into the Basilica Cistern, a vaulted room with 336 9-metre-high marble columns, covering an area the size of a football field. The unique construction shows the ingeniousness of the builders of the Byzantine Empire. The Yerebatan Sarnici, as the Turks call it, had the capacity to store 80,000 cubic metres of water.
After the demise of the Byzantine Empire, the reservoir stood forgotten for centuries until a Frenchman rediscovered this special space in 1545. He had noticed how locals lowered a bucket through a hole in the floor to bring up fresh water, sometimes even finding fish in their buckets. Soak up the history by visiting this intriguing beautifully lit area and stroll across the stone footpaths.