All that is left of Constantinople’s once mighty Hippodrome, which by the 4th-century could seat 100,000 spectators, is the long, rectangular area of At Meydani (Horse Square) in front of the Sultanahmet Mosque. It was the spina, or central reservation, around which the charioteers would race with reckless ferocity, and on which the spoils of war would be heaped up for all to see. The vertical relics that survive are among the most ancient artefacts in the city, including the 5th-century BC Serpentine Column, stolen from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the Egyptian obelisk, carved around 1,500 BC and filched from Karnak. The emperor Theodosius had it set on a marble pedestal carved with scenes celebrating his enjoyment of the races. The noise and excitement inspired by the Romans’ favourite pastime was channelled into an intense rivalry between the two chariot-racing factions, the Blues and the Greens, which dominated Byzantine life. The Niké Riots, which briefly threatened the throne of Justinian, ended in the massacre of 35,000 of the Green faction by the triumphant Blues, which puts even the rivalry between Istanbul’s big football teams – Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas – into perspective.
- At Meydani,