Of course it’s a giraffe. It couldn’t be anything else. Look at those feet, and if those aren’t spots I don’t know what they are. The head once stuck up above the edge of the marble step. After staring at the remains of this bas-relief for hours on end drawing it, I can see that there was a whole frieze attached to the step as well. It was a glorious parade, beautifully carved and probably painted and embellished with metal as well, showing strong men and dancing girls, exotic beasts and acrobats hanging off the newly-erected Egyptian Obelisk. 1600 years ago in the Hippodrome, the crowds must have gone wild, seeing this unveiled, possibly in the midst of a celebratory parade just like it. We celebrate art like this now because it’s original and we’ve seen photos of it, because it’s actually old and looks it rather than being a fake antique or something rendered unrecognizable by restoration, because of the things it has witnessed. It’s something to realize, that before mass production and the mechanized age, a work of art was celebrated because it was the only thing in the world that looked like itself.
See? We’re looking at a marble step, as it were, with the bas-relief carved onto the face of it. The top of that step is all dented and polished with 1600 years of rain. Above that are many tiny erosion holes in patterns that look combed. This is because the marble-cutters left this part unpolished, another clue that it was intended to be covered. This very coarse marble surface segues up into some arches at the top. Let’s see if I can find a photo:
Yep, there had to have been a whole lot more to this parade. The Byzantines ornamented every surface. They would never have left the bottom of those arches bare like that. Something was in front of it. I’m tempted to say that those little water-filled round holes on the flat of the step are artifacts of this, but they’re not symmetrical so I’m not sure. At any rate, we can see that the Giraffe must have had a head, and that it must have stuck up above the rest of him, in front of the flat surface above.
If you’ve just joined us, you should know that this is the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal we’ve got here. It’s on the Hippodrome in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius erected the Obelisk in 390, and he had this Pedestal carved to commemorate the occasion. Despite marble being softer than its granite burden, it’s been holding up for 1600 years. There’s some pertinent history in the previous blog: Standing the Obelisk. In the photo to the right, you can see some carved marble at the bottom. Our Chariot Parade is below it. Theodosius’s engineers reinforced the marble Pedestal with four square granite blocks. The Obelisk was broken almost in half and was lying unused at the Temple at Luxor before the Byzantines brought if from Egypt. These blocks may have been cut from the unused portion. They look exactly the same as the Obelisk itself, but they’re much more worn than it is, so again I’m guessing. The rough surface is between the very bottoms of them. They would have nicely framed the figures on the vanished frieze.
Still, we can see enough to get an idea of the fabulous spectacle chiseled here in stone. Here’s the Strong Man. Look at that chest, those biceps, that bulging thigh muscle. Dancing girls, you say, where are they? They prance at intervals throughout. Here’s the one on the far left, with only a series of dots to mark where her scarf was. Perhaps it was made of gold or bronze, attached with tiny pins. Dancing ahead of the Giraffe are, possibly, two more. These are so desiccated that it’s hard to tell if there’s one or two. She, or They, look to have been leading the Giraffe, for
once again we see two parallel lines of tiny dots. There was probably another dancer at the far right, but only some scratches and lumps remain. The next dancer is back on the far left, in the second row down. She prances along with her hands high over her head, holding something up there, possibly a tambourine. Here’s the fourth, and isn’t she pretty, strolling along with her hand on her hip.
And here’s the Acrobat, hanging off the Obelisk. This sort of art is symbolic in that one figure stands for many, and size is relative to importance, not reality. So there were likely many acrobats cavorting about the Obelisk. They may have somersaulted up there from each others’ shoulders through spinning rings of fire, they may have catapulted up there from elephants to cling triumphant to the pointed top, with chariots racketing all around the racetrack, blue and green, plumed horses glittering in painted harness, There may have been, on that missing frieze, an entire zoo of fabulous flaming acrobatics. Ancient theater was performed in the brilliant light of noon, but fire was popular, mirrors of polished metal made spotlights of the sun.
At either end of the Chariot Parade are two big round shapes topped with three long cones, all lumpy and combed with time. I don’t know what they were, but there’s something very similar shown in the Great Palace mosaics nearby in the Mosaic Museum. See the grey thing in the middle, next to the fellow running wheels? Here’s a close-up of one section of our Chariot Parade, showing the same object, near the Obelisk with Acrobat. This establishes that we’re looking at the Hippodrome, for there’s the Spina– see it running along under the figures?The mosaics were created for Justinian when he rebuilt the Palace after the Nika Rebellion in 532, a little over a century after the Chariot Parade was carved, and you can see them when the Mosaic Museum reopens in May. That section celebrates sports and games, certainly still being played in the Hippodrome of Justinian and Theodora. The Hippodrome was up and running by the third century. Down its center ran a narrow raised section, the Spina. The statues and monuments were there to heighten the suspense and excitement of the races and spectacles by making it harder to see what was going on. Here’s our Obelisk in CGI in the very center of the Hippodrome, up on top of the Spina.
The present surface of the Hippodrome is about twelve feet above the top of the Spina which is still there, under layers of rock and cement and pavement, while hordes of tourists eddy above it, the Sultanahmet hustlers like barracuda around them. And me perched cold to the bone on my little stool in the golden freezing afternoon, unable to stop drawing the Parade although my hands are stiff, thinking of the thousands of skies that have looked down on the Obelisk, the rain sluicing down, the axes chopping, the campfires smoking, all those thousands of turbans milling around it in Ottoman times, when the Hippodrome was the Horse Market. Governments have toppled but never the Obelisk. These tiny figures, hardly a foot high, have withstood earthquakes, fires, plagues, the Iconoclasts and the Crusades. Theodora and Justinian executed twenty thousand people here after the Nika Rebellion, but the tiny dancers continue to cavort, unabashed by their diminished and roughened surfaces. It’s as if the pulse of life was in the marble itself, and the wearing-down of the surface only shows where it is strongest.
Perhaps one day I’ll go into the computer and paint this Parade the way I think it looked, from the research I’ve been able to do merely by looking. Meanwhile I’m glad that I’ve been able to spend so many hours with it, the drawing freezing it at this moment in its slow descent back into the mother stone.