Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Turkey | Istanbul | Hippodrome | Obelisk of Theodosius

The morning after my Arrival In Istanbul I emerged from my hotel slightly before daybreak.  A slight drizzle was falling as I walked up past the remnants of the Miliarum Aureum, or Golden Milestone, which during Byzantine times was used a zero reference point for the milestones on the many roads which extended throughout the empire. A modern signpost next to the ruins shows the air miles to Moscow, Berlin, Paris, and other points of interest. I crossed what the Byzantines called the Mese, the main thoroughfare running through old Constantinople, now called Divan Yolu, into Sultanahmet Meydani, or square. Istanbul is not an early rising town, at least not here in the main historical and tourist district. Not a soul can be seen on Divan Yolu except for one taxi driver asleep in his car and the square is also empty except for two police cars parked near the Column of Theodosius, where the suicide bombing took place three days earlier. The historical center of a city said to have over fifteen million residents is eerily deserted. 

The square is about 950 feet long and 190 feet wide. It is flanked on the southwest by the Sultanahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmet I. With its vast central dome and cluster of half-domes and its six minarets it is surely one of the most iconic mosques in the world. On the northwest is the old mansion of Ibrahim Pasha (1493–1536), grand vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1523–1536). Reputed to be the biggest personal residence ever built in the Ottoman Empire, is it now an art museum. (Ibrahim paid for his extravagance with his live; Suleiman had him executed in 1536 for, in effect, getting too big for his breeches.) On the southern end of the square are the buildings of Marmara University. 
Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
Running in a line down the center of the square are three monuments that predate the Ottoman era. At the southwest end of the square is a 104-foot column of rough stone said to be been erected by Theodosius the Great (a.d. 347–395) or Constantine the Great (a.d. 272–337). It was later sheathed with gilded bronze plaques by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 912–59). The bronze plaques were reportedly stripped off and claimed as booty by the Crusaders and Venetians who sacked Constantinople in 1204. The middle monument is the famous Serpent Column which once graced the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in what is now Greece. The brass column, which consisted of thee intertwined serpents, was cast to celebrate the Greek defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plateae (479 b.c.). The bronze shields of Persian soldiers killed in the battle were reportedly melted down and the metal reused to cast the snake memorial. The names of the thirty-one Greek cities who participated in the Battle of Plateae were inscribed on the bottom of the column. Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, appropriated the column from the Greeks, by then subsumed by the Byzantine Empire, and used it to adorn his new capital. It may have first been placed in the courtyard of nearby Haghia Sophia and only later moved to the Hippdrome. Originally the three snake heads at the top of the column supported a golden bowl. The golden bowl disappeared during the sack of the city in 1204. Later the heads were broken off under unclear circumstances. It has long been rumored that In 1700 an employee of the Polish Embassy to the Sublime Port chopped off one of the heads for a souvenir. Another eventually ended up on the Istanbul Archeological Museum, where it can still be seen today. Thus only the snake column without the heads can now be seen in Sultanahmet Meydani. The third monument in the square is the Obelisk of Theodosius, where the suicide bombing took place.

The Blue Mosque and the residence of Ibrahim Pasha were built during Ottoman times. The three monuments that now stand in Sultanahmet Meydani were placed there during Byzantine era, when the square and the surrounding area were occupied by the Hippodrome, a huge stadium where horse and chariot races and other sporting events were held. It also served as the city’s social center and as a forum for the airing of political disputes. The three monuments marked the spina, or central line, which ran lengthwise through the middle of the Hippodrome. The original Hippodrome (from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, pathway or track) was built by the Emperor Septimus around a.d. 203. In 324 Constantine the Great established Constantinople as his new capital and embarked on a building spree during which the Hippodrome was renovated and enlarged. The new version was considerably larger than current-day Sultanahmet Square, measuring about 1575 feet in length and 385 feet in width. It could reportedly seat 100,000 or more people, making it as big as the largest football stadiums today in the USA (Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, seats 107,60; AT&T Stadium [Jerry World], home of the Dallas Cowboys, seats a mere 80,000). On the southeastern end of the stadium was the Kathisma (Emperor's Loge), where the reigning Byzantine emperor and his family and court sat. The Kathisma could be entered directly from the Great Palace of the Byzantines—long since gone; Sultanahmet Mosque now stands on part of the area once covered by the Grand Palace—and thus protected from the hoi polloi, who were not slow to express their disfavor toward unpopular emperors. The square northeast end of the stadium hosted the Hippodrome Boxes, which served as the starting gates for the chariot races. Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates (1155–1217), who must have visited the Hippodrome many times, reports:
 . . . in the Hippodrome there was a tower which stood opposite the spectators; beneath it were the starting posts, which opened into the racecourse through parallel arches and above were fixed four gilt-bronze horses, their necks somewhat curved as if they eyed each other as they raced round the last lap.
These larger-than-life statues of four horses have survived; as we shall see, they have had a long and intriguing history.
Byzantine Constantinople, showing the area around the Hippodrome
The drizzle has turned into a pelting rain, and a keening wind sweeps through the square as I approach the Column of Theodosius. One of the cops in the two cop cars nearby briefly glances my way, then quickly goes back to his newspaper. Turkish flags have been attached to the railing around the obelisk and mourners have left a heap of red carnations. Signs, mostly in German—it had been confirmed that eleven of the twelve people killed in the attack were German tourists—have been placed atop the carnations and tied to the railing.  The suicide bomber, it turned out, was twenty-eight year-old Nabil Fadli. Born in Saudi Arabia, he grew up in the town of Manbil in northern Syria, an area currently under control of ISIS.  He had entered Turkey on January 5, 2016, claiming to be a refugee from the conflict in Syria. It was eventually determined that he was an ISIS soldier and probably had entered Turkey specifically to carry out the suicide bombing. Tourists may have been targeted as a means of striking a blow to the tourist industry and thus the Turkish economy in general. It appears unlikely that Germans had been specifically singled out. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Memorials left at the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius
The stated goal of ISIS is to create a new world-wide Caliphate. The last Caliphate to claim universal leadership of the Islamic world had been overseen by the Ottomans, with the sitting sultan holding the title of Caliph. The secular government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, leaving the Islamic geosphere as a whole without a recognized leader. ISIS now intends to right what is perceives to be this historical wrong. The bombing here in Sultanahmet Meydani, less than a hundred feet from the entrance to the Blue Mosque, one of Islam’s greatest monuments, is an attack not only on the Turkish state, which had outlawed the last Caliphate, but also on the mainstream Islamic world that has so far failed to recognize the Caliphate headed by ISIS. 
Entrance to the Blue Mosque
A few people have begun to wander through the square, probably locals on their way to work. They scurry by the obelisk without a glance, their heads down against the glancing rain. Terrible as this bombing has been, it was not the worst Turkey has seen recently. In July of 2015 more than thirty people died in a suicide attack near Turkey’s border with Syria. In October of 2015 suicide bombs at a peace rally in Turkey's capital of Ankara killed more than 100 people. Suicide bombings have been woven into the fabric of everyday life. I stand and stare at the obelisk, on whose four sides are carved Egyptian hieroglyphs oddly enough celebrating the victory of Egyptians over the inhabitants of Mesopotamia—now partly controlled by ISIS—over 3500 years ago.

The obelisk had originally been erected by Egyptian pharoah Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 b.c.) at the Temple of Karnak, the immense religious site at Luxor, on the right bank of the Nile 315 miles south of Cairo. Thutmose III, sixth pharaoh of the Eighteen Dynasty, was one of Egypt’s greatest military leaders. He led at least seventeen military campaigns, capturing some 350 cites. He advanced south in Nubia, in Black Africa, reaching the Fourth Cataract on the Nile, 750 miles south of Cairo as the crow flies, and invaded what are now the countries of Israel, Jordan, Syria, northern Iraq, and southwest Turkey. Over fourteen hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth he created what could be called the world’s first superpower. One campaign took him  through what is now Syria and then beyond the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia (now Iraq), then ruled by the Indo-Aryans known as the Mitanni. 
Thutmose III
To celebrate the crossing of the Euphrates and his victory after the Mitanni Thutmose erected one of the several obelisks that would mark his reign. Carved from granite, this obelisk was originally ninety-eight feet long and weighed some 800 tons. Around a.d. 357 Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, had this and another obelisk from Karnak transported, presumably by barge, down the Nile to the port city of Alexandria. One of the obelisks was then taken to Rome, where it was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus. Known as the Lateran Obelisk, it still stands there today. For reasons unknown the other obelisk remained in Alexandria until 390. During the reign of Theodosius I it was shipped to Constantinople and eventually erected on the spina of the Hippodrome. At some point in its journey from Luxor to Constantinople the obelisk had broken into two or more pieces. Only the top sixty feet of the column was erected in the Hippodrome. The granite used to make the obelisk must have been very hard. The column shows no signs of age, and the four rows of inscriptions on its sides are so clear and sharp they could have been carved yesterday. 
The Obelisk of Theodosius 
For 3500 years the obelisk has existed, bearing witness to the greatness of Thutmose III and the eventual fall of Pharaonic Egypt; the subsumption of  Egypt by the Roman Empire; and the rise of Byzantine Empire around Constantine the Great’s capital city, which he wanted to call the New Rome, but then had to settle for having it named after himself. It witnessed all the momentous events which took place in the Hippodrome, including the Nika revolt of 532, when rebels tried to seize the crown of Justinian I. The insurgences unwisely gathered in the Hippodrome, where on Justinian’s orders his loyal troops led by the generals Belisarius and Mundus blocked the exits and then waded into the crowd, killing some 35,000 of them. According to legend many of the dead were buried where they fell on the floor of the Hippodrome, which means I might at this moment be standing on their remains. The obelisk stood as a silent witness when on May 29, 1453 Mehmed the Conqueror led his troops into  Constantinople. He rode into Haghia Sofia, just a few hundred yards away and  claimed it for Islam, thus bringing to an end the 1123 year-old Byzantine, or East Roman Empire, and initiating the Ottoman Empire. The obelisk also kept its silent vigil when the Ottomans fell and the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished. And now it has witnessed the deaths of twelve visitors to Istanbul by a suicide bomber hoping to further the cause of a new Caliph arising in Syria and Mesopotamia, the same lands conquered by Thutmose III 3500 years ago, and whose defeat by Thutmose caused the obelisk to be erected in the first place. The Wheel of Time grinds slow, but fine. 

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