On the north-west side of the Sultanahmet Mosque, a strip of over-touristed tea-houses and souvenir shops fringes the Hippodrome (At Meydanı), formerly the focal point of Byzantine Constantinople. At one time, this ancient arena was used for races, court ceremonies, coronations and parades. Originally laid out by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus during his rebuilding of the city, the arena was later enlarged by Constantine to its present dimensions – the modern road exactly follows the tracks of the old racing lanes. Now an elongated park circled by traffic, the Hippodrome retains an odd assortment of monuments standing on what was the spina, the raised area around which chariots would have thundered. Closest to the mosque is an Egyptian obelisk, removed from the Temple of Karnak at Thebes (now Luxor). The obelisk was originally carved in around 1500 BC in order to commemorate the great victories of Pharaoh Thutmosis III. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius had it moved to Constantinople in AD 390 and set upon a marble pedestal sculpted with scenes of himself and family enjoying a day at the races.
Next to the obelisk is the bronze Serpentine Column (also known as the Spiral Column), carried off from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where it had been set to commemorate Greek victory over the Persians in 480 BC. When it was brought to the Byzantine capital by Constantine its three entwined serpents had heads, but each was decapitated over the years. One detached head survives and is displayed in the Archaeology Museum. A third monument, known as the Column of Constantine, is a pockmarked and crumbling affair, once sheathed in gold-plated bronze, but stripped by the looting Fourth Crusaders.
Overlooking the Hippodrome is the grand Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art , while downhill from its south-west corner is the Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Mosque, another tour de force by Sinan. It’s one of his later buildings (constructed 1571-2), praised by architectural historians for the way it copes with an uneven, sloping site. If you can get inside (hang around and somebody will usually turn up with a key) you’ll notice the lovely tiling and painted calligraphic inscriptions, set among vivid floral motifs.
The streets round here twist and jog between creaky wooden buildings and are a delight to explore. Head south, downhill toward the sea, for the Küçük Haghia Sophia Mosque, or ‘Little Haghia Sophia’, so called because of its resemblance to Justinian’s great cathedral. Like its larger namesake, it was originally a church, in this case dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, the patron saints of the Christianised Roman army. Also like its namesake, it’s not much to look at from the outside but possesses a fine interior, including a frieze honouring Justinian and his wife, Theodora. There’s also a pleasant garden with an attached cafe.
Following Küçük Ayasofya Caddesi back uphill leads past the very worthwhile Mosaic Museum and the Ottoman-era shopping centre, the Arasta Bazaar, beyond which is a sunken terrace cafe where you can smoke nargile.
Küçük Haghia Sophia Mosque
Küçük Ayasofya Camii
Küçük Ayasofya Caddesi, Sultanahmet. Tram Sultanahmet. Open prayer times only, daily. Admission free.
Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Mosque
Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii
Şehit Mehmet Paşa Sokak 20, Sultanahmet. Tram Sultanahmet Open 7am-dusk daily. Admission free.