Ottoman palaces and mosques have replaced the great terraces from which citizens of Constantinople once cheered their charioteers. But walk down the hill at the Blue Mosque end and you see how they are all supported by an incredible feat of Byzantine engineering.
The 3,500-year-old obelisk that marks the spina (spine) of the Hippodrome – flanked by the headless serpents of Thebes and a second, masonry obelisk – is a tribute to Pharaoh Thutmosis III, but also to Byzantine engineering. Not till 390 AD, a full century after it had been brought to the harbour, did the architects of Emperor Theodosius the Great finally devise a strategy for hauling the 20-metre granite shaft up the hill and onto its mount. The base of the Obelisk of Theodosius tells the whole story. Crowds gather at ceremonies, with the emperor presiding from his box, the kathisma. Dancing girls and musicians entertain, charioteers race, barbarians offer tribute.
In later times the Ottoman sultans recreated the scene during elaborate ceremonies to celebrate their sons’ circumcisions: ‘Murad III’s most notable achievement was a series of public festivities inspired by Catherine de Medici’s famed series of political entertainments and vividly recorded in hundreds of miniatures in the volume known as the Surname’, writes Christine Thomson in Cornucopia 18.
Most organised tours start in the Hippodrome before the museums open and it is the best place to get your bearings, with Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, the Mosaic Museum, all right there, along with some of the most interesting shopping and hotels in the Old City.
As you wend your way down the hill behind the Blue Mosque to Küçük Ayasofya and Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Camii don’t forget to look to your right and take in the enormous arches that hold the Hippodrome up.
Best by tram. When you are there be wary of cabs. Best to get one from one of the hotels or from the ‘durak’ rank on the hill down to Küçük Ayasofya. Never get in unless they agree to open the metre.
On foot. This is also the starting point for open-top bus tours of the city.
Excellent quick lunch of Köfte at the Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi accomanied by bean salad and followed by semolina helva. That is the menu. In the evening pick a small hotel near Ayasofya, and sip rakı on its rooftop terrace eye to eye with the basilica’s awesome dome. A popular fish restaurant is Sabahattin Balıkçısı, down a flight of steps behind the Four Seasons. Kazim Zoto’s Armada Hotel terrace has fine views as well as good mezes, and just outside the gate is the meyhane called Karışma Sen, now belonging to Mr Zoto’s sister.