The Obelisk of Theodosius and the Horseman of Revelation 6.

On my first morning out in Istanbul, we got up early to head towards the Hagio Sophia, the site of the – originally 4th century – church where a modern day mosque sits.

View of the Blue Mosque, travelling towards the Hagia Sophia from Taksim, Istanbul.

On the path from the burrow of Taksim, Istanbul towards the mosque we came across the Hippodrome of Constantinople, an ancient horse racing arena built during the glory days of Constantinople. It consists of two very large obelisks at either end, one from ancient Egypt and the other added in the 10th century by Constantine VII.

The Hippodrome of Constantine, known today as At Meydanı.
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs of the Obelisk of Theodosius

The Obelisk of Theodosius is 3700 years old, originally erected in the Temple of Karnak in by the Egyptian king Thutmos III in 1490 BC. It was was brought to this location by Theodosius the great in 390. The pink marble obelisk is lined with both ancient hieroglyphs and an inscription singing the praises of submitting to Theodosius, and his “eternal offspring.”

As our guide taught us the history of this place, he explained that the horse races had four teams competing, and they were always the same: A blue team, a red team, a green team, and a white team. The team riders would change but the colors and the name of the team were permanent.

Four horserace statue that once sat above the hippodrome., now in the Istanbul Archeology Museum

When I heard this I was reminded of the book of revelation, where we see what I’ve always understood as a reference, sort of a “nod” if you will, to another horse race that proceeded the end of the Domitian games.
We find it in Revelation 6:
V2: “I looked, and there before me was a white horse!”
V4: “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one”
v5: “”I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse!”
v8: “”I looked, and there before me was a pale horse!”

These horse races between different colored horses were apparently a tradition in the ancient world, and I woudl argue that the people reading this letter from John would likely have connected the imagery here to the hippodromes built all over rome by her emperors to solidify their place in history and earn the praises of the people.

The Domitian games were a vanity project, and the same can be said of much of what we can see in the city that used to be called Constantinople, but which we now know as Istanbul (insert obligatory “They Might be Giants” reference). In fact, it seems that vanity projects became a natural part of the church once it mixed with the power of Rome during the time of Emperor Constantine. So far this week I have visited the ruins of no less than 4 ancient churches within driving distance of this place, all of which started construction in 325 (the year that solidified the union between church and state in the ancient world), or in the years immediately following it.

One of symptoms that a people has been captivated by power is the sudden urge to make their presence known through just these sorts of means: large beautiful structures that are intended to both outlast the people who built them, both solidifying their own name in history and spreading their own glory throughout the world. The church, once mixed with power, instantly shifted from being a dissident upside down kingdom that Jesus taught us about, where “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matt 20:13), to a people who looks at status and honor through the same lens as the cultures in which we live.

Worldly power demands that the rich and powerful go first, that they become the center of our world (I will talk more about this in coming posts).

Of course, the horse race between the four horses of Revelation bring about war, violence, economic oppression, and – ultimately – death.
John’s warning in Revelation 6 is simple: mixing the power of the Gospel with the power of the Empire will bring much of the same, and according to history, he was right.

The same warning goes out to us, the church in 2022.
If we attempt to wield the power of the throne of emperors, kings, and presidents, we will not bring about the flourishing that we seek. These leaders are a caricature of the real thing, which is Jesus. Instead, the church will replace the empire as the instrument of the beast in this world.
The power of Jesus is not on display amongst the obelisks and hippodromes of the powerful and wealthy, but outside the city, with the dissidents, joining them on their crosses all while loving their enemies and forgiving those that put them there.
Jesus didn’t built palaces, temples, obelisks, or statue. He built communities of love and grace, the diverse and gracious people who gathered in his name were his monument for the world to see.

3 responses to “The Obelisk of Theodosius and the Horseman of Revelation 6.”

  1. I think you meant ‘They Might Be Giants’… unless they were just covering the Barenaked Ladies. 🤪


  2. I anticipate with heightened expectation the insights you glean and the resulting wisdom imparted from this worthy venture. My wife and I returned from a trip to Greece last month and took a side trip trip to Korinthos (Corinth) 1 hour north of Athens. That city/state was destroyed by the Romans in 156 AD, resulting in the end of a prolific culture. Sadly, there was no reference to the apostle Paul’s visit in approx 50 AD in the small museum located there.
    Similarly, we visited the Areopagus in Athens and experienced no mention of his famous speech to the Athenians.


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