A mosaic of different cultures, Istanbul is home to countless treasures of the past. Here’s the story of the obelisk towering over the Sultanahmet Square: a massive monument from Ancient Thebes brought to the city over 16 centuries ago.
The story of the Obelisk of Theodosius takes us on a journey back in time, around 360 years before Istanbul’s predecessor, Constantinople, was even founded, to the aftermath of Cleopatra’s death in 30 BCE Alexandria.
The demise of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic Kingdom’s last ruler, marked the Roman Empire’s annexation of Egypt, after which point emperors began extracting obelisks to place in their major cities.
The colossal four-sided pillars, once raised by Egyptians to honour their gods and commemorate their leaders, became symbols of Rome’s victory over the Egyptian civilisation.
Two of those obelisks were extracted from the Great Temple of Amun in Karnak, Thebes, by the decree of Constantine the Great — the emperor who founded Constantinople in 330 CE as a new capital of the Roman Empire.
The obelisks were transported from Thebes to Alexandria along the Nile. One was to be erected in Rome and the other was meant for newly founded Constantinople. However, that journey was halted when news of Constantine’s death reached Alexandria, and the obelisks remained in the city.
Two decades later, in 357 CE, Constantine’s son and successor, Constantine II, took on his father’s initiative to commemorate the 20th year of his rule.
One obelisk was sent to Rome that year and raised at the heart of the city, towering over the Circus Maximus (meaning ‘largest circus’). It is, today, the tallest Egyptian obelisk in the world, towering 32.2 metres, and is located near the Lateran Basilica.
The Lateran Obelisk’s twin, however, would take much longer to reach its new home as it remained in Alexandria for unknown reasons.
It would be Constantine II’s successor, Julian, who had the obelisk brought to Constantinople. However, he died shortly after moving the pillars, and the obelisk stayed in the city’s harbour for around three more decades.
The Roman effort to raise the red granite obelisk, initially erected in Karnak by Pharaohs Thutmose III and Thutmose IV in the 15th century BCE, would finally succeed in 390 CE by the decree of Emperor Theodosius I.
“The history of the Obelisk of Theodosius has a lot to do with the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which takes us to the heart of Rome: the Circus Maximus,” Associate Professor Luca Zavagno from Ankara’s Bilkent University told TRT World.
Founded by Emperor Constantine, Constantinople was intended to be the “new Rome.” For the Empire, Rome was seen as the perfect city — a model that every other major city would aspire to emulate.
“This relationship with Rome shaped Constantinople, and so it shaped the Hippodrome,” explained Zavagno. Located at the heart of Constantinople, the Hippodrome was inspired by Rome’s Circus Maximus, a massive stadium which could hold up to 300,000 people.
The Hippodrome, known today as Sultanahmet Square, was a Roman circus with an estimated capacity of 100,000 people. It was the site of chariot races, public gatherings, festivities and ceremonies, and was the new home of the Obelisk of Theodosius.
The obelisk was raised on the spina of the Hippodrome, which is the barrier in the middle of the circus. Since Rome served as the model for Constantinople, the obelisk was intended to match the Flaminio Obelisk from Heliopolis that had already been erected at the Circus Maximus by Emperor Augustus in 10 BCE.
But in the Circus Maximus, the existing obelisk had been paired with the new one brought from Karnak (the Lateran Obelisk). So, a similar pairing was repeated in Constantinople and another obelisk was erected in the Hippodrome: the Walled Obelisk, which was a Roman monument.
One caveat: the obelisk that was brought to Constantinople, which saw seven emperors before Theodosius rise and fall before being raised, was broken. When that happened is unknown, though it is assumed to have occurred sometime between its transit to its re-erection.
With each of its four sides inscribed with hieroglyphics commending the military success of Thutmose III, the monolith, like its twin, the Lateran Obelisk, initially stood almost 30 metres tall.
The lower part of the obelisk was lost to history – no one knows what happened to it – and the monument alone stood at less than 20 metres. To compensate for the diminished size of the obelisk, the monument was placed on a base consisting of two pedestals when it was mounted in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, now standing 25.6 metres tall.
The upper pedestal of the obelisk’s base depicts Theodosius and his court during moments from the races and ceremonies in the Hippodrome.
Two sides of the lower pedestal were engraved with images, one depicting the obelisk being raised in the Hippodrome, and another depicting the races.
The other two sides contain two inscriptions commemorating the raising of the obelisk in Constantinople. One inscription is in Greek, the language of the common people, and the other in Latin, the language of the court.
“Difficult once, I was ordered to be obedient to the serene masters and, after the tyrants had been extinguished, to carry the palm. All things cede to Theodosius and his undying issue. Thus I, defeated and tamed in thirty days, when Proclus* was judge, was raised to the skies above.”
“Written as if the obelisk itself is speaking, the text refers to the fact that Theodosius had to defeat some rivals in order to become an emperor,” Zavagno explained. The monument that once symbolised the power of Thutmose III had now come to glorify Theodosius.
By being removed from its original context in Karnak, the obelisk had lost its inherent meaning and significance. However, in Constantinople, it found new purpose.
The silent witness
“Constantinople was an obscure town called Byzantium when Constantine chose it as the place to find his city. Byzantium had no past, in a sense. It was not famous. So there was a problem of legitimising the city, justifying it as a new capital,” Zavagno explained.
Constantine thus embellished the city with statues and monuments brought from around the Empire. This trend continued as each new emperor sought to display his power, turning the city into a home to all kinds of treasures.
That was especially the case for the Hippodrome, where a multitude of artefacts were gathered, “so the obelisk was in good company,” joked Zavagno.
That was, however, until the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, when the Hippodrome’s treasures were mostly destroyed. The only monuments that remained were the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpentine Column, and the Walled Obelisk that adorned the Hippodrome’s spina.
Despite the destruction, the Hippodrome itself remained, and the three monuments became its symbols.
Even after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Hippodrome maintained its importance and was used by the Ottoman Empire to host fairs, ceremonies and festivities.
“Throughout the transitions, that space was essential, central to the social, cultural, political, and religious life of Istanbul,” explained Zavagno.
Having been in Istanbul since the city was established as Constantinople, the Obelisk of Theodosius is a silent witness to the history of the city.
“A foreign entity, brought all the way from Egypt, was there at the very beginning of the city, and witnessed the transition of the city throughout centuries while the Hippodrome — now the Sultanahmet Square — preserved its importance as the city’s ceremonial heart,” he added.
Withstanding centuries, the obelisk saw the city transition from a Roman capital to a Byzantine capital; it was a spectator to the Fourth Crusade, as well as the conquest of Constantinople, and it witnessed the creation of Istanbul under Ottoman rule, as well as the modernisation of the city as the cultural capital of Türkiye.
* Proclus was the Archbishop of Constantinople.