The area around the Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) square is one of the oldest parts of the city. The Roman emperor Septimus Severus began construction of this grand square in 196 AD and it was completed as the “Hippodrome’ in the time of Emperor Constantine I (324- 337). This district was the site of the imperial events of the Roman Emperor and could accommodate a total of 100,000 bystanders who would come to view the grand events happening here. Adjacent to this square were the grand palaces and residences of the leading officials of the Empire.
Among the obelisks that graced the Hippodrome in the Byzantine Empire that are still extant today is the “Egyptian Obelisk’ that was transported to the Byzantine Empire. Its erection at this site is another story and one too long to be told here. In archaeological excavations that spanned 1939-1942 the foundations of the 5th century Antiohos Palace were uncovered. Besides the obelisks the Ayia Euphemia Church, the Hippodrome cisterns, the Philoxensus Palace and the “Thousand and One Columns” cistern are Byzantine monuments that can still be seen.
The heart of the Byzantine Empire beat from this square up until the end of the 12th century but with the move to a new palace the Hippodrome lost some of its earlier importance. The Crusades of 1204-1261 acted to destroy this area as the Latins burned and ransacked everything within their reach.
With the Ottoman conquest of 1453 the Hippodrome took on a new identity. The Turks transformed the area into a massive riding ground and here they played their famous horseback jereet. Up until the late 17th or early 18th centuries this was also the site for palace receptions, royal ceremonies and, in fact, several uprisings and rebellions with the Janissary uprisings perhaps the most famous. Up through the 19th century the square was also the address of the leading notables of the Empire and ranked as its largest square.
As the 20th century was born Sultanahmet Square continued to be the site of the Empire’s most famous residences and monuments and the Empire’s traditional meeting grounds. During the War of Independence it was famous for the speeches made here.
Today the Square is the center of Turkish tourism. Tourists from all over the world flock here to visit the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace Grounds, the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Islamic Artifacts, the many cisterns, and the other monuments and historical buildings that appear at every corner. No visit to Turkey is complete without a visit to this square and a glimpse into the history imbued in the square itself.