During difficult times I seek solace in history. It’s the only thing quiets my mind. The world has ended so many times, and yet here we still are. I love living in Istanbul because a lot of the old stuff still looks old. I can actually see the evidence of centuries on these monumental witnesses to cataclysm and triumph. I draw them before the restorers arrive and eradicate all that. I draw a portrait of a place at a particular moment in its history, warts and all: scarred, worn, magnificent. And so to the Sphendone, bulwark of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, brickwork so old it looks like lumpy striped stone, now as dear and familiar to me as the bamboo patches on our old hill in Los Angeles. The more I learn about it, the more I love it. It’s been holding up the whole neighborhood for almost two thousand years.
BUILT TO LAST Leviathan bulkhead of Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the Sphendone looks like the prow of a giant ship powering out into the Marmara. The first time I saw it, in 1999, I did not at first realize that it was made of brick. I didn’t know that brick and mortar could become one rock. During the Middle Ages, the formula for Roman mortar was lost, to be re-discovered as hydraulic cement, which hardens under water. Does the durability of the Sphendone have to do with its being full of water? Because when the History Channel opened up a little door in it a few years ago and went in, they had to do it by canoe.
EXPLORING WITH LINE Back in May of 1999, rendering a whole stone wall was beyond me. I’d been drawing with a Wacom pen on a computer for too long. I was good at portraits, but I had to sneak up on this architectural stuff, drawing corners and windows, small bits of the whole I longed to capture. I tried to draw the cavelike arch openings, filled with dirt and old shoes, as you can see to the right of the houri in this walkaround drawing from that first trip. I remember that the little lady in the upper right corner lived across from the cave arches, had a blue tattoo on her chin, and was delighted with her portrait when I held it up.
By November of that year, after constant drawing in the sketchbooks, I was able to render a longshot of the South Face of the wall, along with this little girl who lived behind the doorstep I sat on for three sessions. I remember that my eyes had gotten infected, and I had to trade my contact lenses for glasses that weren’t strong enough. Later I came back with lenses and increased the level of detail– and by then, I could.
EVOLUTION OF AN ARENA Byzantium’s great Arena, the Hippodrome, was created in the late 2nd Century by Roman Emperor Septimus “The Libyan” Severus, the boy who brought us the Circus Maximus and other points of interest in Rome of that same era. The size of our Istanbul Hippodrome is only eclipsed by the one in Rome.
The Hippodrome was enlarged early in the 4th Century by Constantine the Great.
Chariots tore around the track, now roughly followed by the current road. Down the center ran the Spina– the Spine– a flat stone ledge that stuck up a couple of meters above the floor. Its many ornamental sculptures blocked sections of the action, heightening the suspense. The central ornament, still standing, is the Egyptian Obelisk, erected in 390 by Theodosius, lauded here in previous posts Standing the Obelisk and Chariot Parade. You can see the Spina at right in this painting.
The absolute best way to imagine the Istanbul Hippodrome in its heyday is to watch the famous chariot race from MGM’s 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur. It’s all over YouTube, knock yourself out. See the Spina in this film grab below?
Chariot racing took on political aspects with the emergence of the Patrician Blues and the Plebian Greens. Sports riots are not a new thing: after Theodora grew up and became Empress, one almost destroyed the city.
THE NIKA REBELLION
532: Smoke-sabled skies, a copper sun, the palace burning, blood and noise, mobs of people slaughtering each other in what has come to be called the Nika Rebellion. Emperor Justinian quelled the riot at the behest of Theodora, who refused to leave the city. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she famously said, fingering her royal garments, “leave if you like.” Justinian bought off the leaders of the Blues, and his ferocious general Belisarius laid waste to the remaining rioters, executing thirty thousand rebels out on the edge of the Sphendone. Buried where they died, their bones are said to sleep behind its arches to this day.
AFTER JUSTINIAN By Fall of 2004 I was able to render an entire arch. I’ve always loved this antique Ottoman fountain and modern brick terrace juxtaposed with the looming savage East Face of the Sphendone. That lump of brick in the middle remains from the bricking-up of the arches after an earthquake of 551. Behind them is a series of concentric chambers opening into a main corridor. Bear in mind that the present ground level of the Hippodrome, up top, is several meters above the original floor, which was filled in over the centuries. Here’s our Fountain Arch in 1982, behind the clothesline to the right:
And here it is in February of 2005.
Chariot racing was never the same after the Nika Rebellion. But Byzantines and Ottomans alike loved spectacle as much as we do today. Lions, gladiators, elephants, dancers, actors wearing huge masks, fire-eaters, and acrobats capered through the regimes, held up by these massive Sphendone arches. Here’s a CGI recreation of what the place looked like in 1200, reproduced with permission from the fabulous Byzantium 1200 website.
The arches at the bottom are the ones that are still here. By the 16th century, the Hippodrome was reduced to this:
These surviving pillars are scattered all over Istanbul, chopped into paving, in Ottoman ruins of baths and bakehouses. Some possibly survive intact, in the Islamic Arts Museum and in the Blue Mosque. The Spina is buried under the present surface, still ornamented by the Egyptian Obelisk, the remains of the Serpent Column of Delphi, and the 11th Century Obelisk. Over the Sphendone is the Sultanahmet Technical and Industrial High School, built around the turn of the 20th Century. Here’s a satellite view of the Hippodrome today, with my outline in white indicating the original size. The Sphendone is at the bottom, below the red roofs of the school.
WALKING AROUND THE SPHENDONE On the West Face is a small metal door in a stone lintel. It looks like something out of The Hobbit, and so does this drawing I did of it in 2004.
This is where the History Channel went in. Here’s a long shot of the street. See the tops of the arches?
When I drew the door, I did it on a Sunday for fewer cars. Construction workers on the building opposite yelled at anyone who tried to park there. I don’t speak Turkish, but those guys loved the sketchbook.
Later I came back and took pictures, and just look at all the artifacts here. This little window has a Star of David to its right, most likely in its previous incarnation as an Islamic symbol.
This next thing was probably inside a house. But before that? I’ve been told there was a mosque in here, and government offices. The top of this Roman arch has been cut to resemble Ottoman architecture and the inscription cemented on.
Here’s another bony old arch showing through modern brickwork.
Not so long ago, this entire wall was covered with houses. The government ripped them down, but left the skin behind.
DRAWING THE ARCHES Now here’s a refresher on where we started, back in Constantine’s time, when all the arches looked the same.
Then earthquake, mayhem, cultural upheaval, fire and conquest. And now, like people in a family, simple survival has given each arch individual characteristics. I thought two drawings would set me at ease, but my fascination with the visible history of the Sphendone continues. I wish they would light it at night and leave it alone. Now that I’ve learned how to draw those first arches I saw, I can’t. A cafe known in the neighborhood as Ugly Mushroom has been allowed to build a plastic-shrouded, television-blaring structure that blocks the magnificent cavelike arches along the East Face, where you used to be able to smoke nargile while contemplating the 1700-year-old brick and mortar. So I moved south, and drew this Parking Lot Arch. On Wednesdays, there’s a Farmers’ Market here.
Delicious produce below, and the shouts of sports players in the school yard above. Here’s the South Face with the Parking Lot Arch over to the right in 1935, hidden behind a house:
Farther along in the South Face is an even more evocative Ghost House Arch.
Gladiators and rebel martyrs long gone, that’s a piece of a commode up there just below center. The two arched windows up top belong to the high school. This antique structure– festival bones, water and brick and blood– functions as its foundation. They just drilled right into the solid old Roman ruin. See here, on the right?
If this structure wasn’t serviceable, it would never have survived so long. But survive it does. I sat in a playground full of shrieking children to draw Ghost House Arch. And as the South Face rounds over into the West Face, there’s this Wooden House Arch.
Sublime, isn’t it? Just look at the runnels in that brickwork from centuries of storms. This house survived because it’s several meters in front of the wall, although from a distance it blends right in. The building up top belongs to the high school. I drew this one in 2006 to great acclaim by the neighbors. Immediately to the right of the house was a group of vociferous scarved women who refused to be drawn, but who ran over cackling from time to time with cups of tea and yells of delight at the progress. How I miss them! I used to live two blocks from here. These wooden houses are about two hundred years old. There was one across the street, but one night in a storm it collapsed. The next day it was almost gone, carried away for firewood by these indomitable scarved duennas of the neighborhood.
Witness to so many lives lived and passed out of recollection, this brickwork gives me peace. My terrifying problems seem as ephemeral as storms on old brick. They may erode the shape into something unforeseen, but the Sphendone still stands. Roman mortar– it hardens under water.
All drawings © Trici Venola. All drawings done on site. Standard size is 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 in, drafting pens on rag paper. We love your comments.