Friday, 25 June 2010

The hippodrome

Those who have seen the movie Ben Hur may be able to understand that horse racing in the Roman Empire was a dangerous sport. Many though do not know that the hippodrome where Charlton Heston showed his talents for violent chariot driving was supposed to be the hippodrome of Antioch.

The race course was located on a big island in the river Orontes close to where the palace was built later on. Today there is no island anymore, but the ruins of the hippodrome are still to be seen in the area called Küçükdalyan north of the municipality building at a street (or road) called Cumhuriyet Mahallesi Yolu. This hippodrome was one of the largest in the Roman Empire so it is no wonder that it was remembered by the writer of Ben Hur.

It seems that certain sports attract hooligans. This also applied to horse racing in Roman and Byzantine times. In Constantinople and Antioch the spectators either supported the Blue team or the Green according to the colours they wore. It was not unlike the hooligans who support the football teams Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe in modern Istanbul – and their behaviour was not very different either. Back then the colours also spelled political stands as the Blue team was mostly supported by the Greek or conservative element and the Green team by the local Arameans. Later it got a religious flavour as the Orthodox and the Jews started to support the Blue team and the Monophysists the Green. But this is another story.

Upheavals and riots often started at the hippodrome and spread to the rest of Antioch where the frenzy of the rabid hooligans had a contagious effect on the rest of the Antiochians with murder, rape and arson as a result. No wonder that people in power wanted to control what happened at the race course. And when this at times turned out to be impossible, they simply closed the games down.

Ruins of the hippodrome in Antioch