Some 8km north of Gazimağusa, and signposted from both the coast road to Boğaz and the main road to the capital, is a group of ruins which are among the most important and impressive in Cyprus, north or south. By far the most famous and most photographed are the remains, largely Roman, of Ancient Salamis. But within a couple of minutes’ drive of this colossal seaside site are the Royal Tombs, the monastery of St Barnabas, now a museum, and the prehistoric remains of Enkomi-Alasia. Allow a day for a full inspection, or half a day for edited highlights.
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One of the most significant archeological sites in the Mediterranean, Salamis is notable not only for the richness and extent of its remains but also for its agreeable beachside setting. The site itself is huge and, despite almost a century of archeological digging, has still not been completely uncovered. A plan of the site at the entrance (clearly signposted from Gazimağusa) offers two walking routes, one short, one long. Luckily the most important and most comprehensively investigated buildings are very close together just beyond the entrance. If you intend to view every single part of the city, it’ll involve a lot of walking so come prepared.
Founded around 1075 BC by Greek and Anatolian settlers and reinforced by refugees as Enkomi-Alasia was abandoned, Salamis was an important cultural centre throughout Classical Greek and Roman times, becoming the richest and most important city on the island for around 1700 years. Its kings claimed descent from its founder, the Trojan War hero Teucer, brother of Ajax and son of the King of Salamis, the island to the south of Athens (hence the name). Destroyed by earthquakes in 332 and 343 AD, the city was rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Constantine II, who modestly renamed it Constantia. But the harbour silted up, there were further earthquakes, and the coup de grace was delivered by the Arab raids which plagued Cyprus from the seventh century AD onwards. The inhabitants of Salamis moved south to where modern Gazimağusa now stands.
The first impressive group of remains are the Gymnasium and Baths, built originally by the Greeks and substantially modified by the Romans and Byzantines. At the heart of the building is the huge open courtyard surrounded by columns, and with the remains of a plinth in the centre. This is the palaestra, where people exercised or stood gossiping in the shade of the surrounding colonnaded stoa. Much of the tessellated marble flooring remains, with clearly legible inscriptions in places. To the west of the palaestra are the remains of a number of shops. To the east are the baths with the usual series of rooms of escalating heat – from frigidarium to caldarium. In places the floor has collapsed, revealing the hypocaust (underfloor heating system) beneath. Plunge pools stand at either side of the baths, the northern one (through which you enter the site) rectangular and surrounded by headless statues. There are also latrines, several octagonal pools and an aqueduct for bringing in the water.
Leaving the baths via the south plunge pool, a column-lined path leads to the sketchy remains of an amphitheatre/stadium. Beyond here is the much more impressive theatre, one of the highlights of the site. Built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC–14 AD), it has the standard Greco-Roman semi-circular layout, though built upwards in the Roman manner rather than fitting into a hillside as the Greeks were wont to do. As you enter it from the north, the seating curves sharply to your left around the semi-circular orchestra, the stage and proscenium straight ahead. Much restored (the new seating is easily distinguished from the original – it’s white instead of red/brown), it could originally accommodate 15,000 spectators in fifty rows of seats. In the orchestra was an altar to Dionysus, and the stage was backed by statues.
When you leave the theatre, the short route swings round through the second car/coach park back to the entrance. The long route continues south, past the remains of the largest basilica in Cyprus, founded by St Epiphanius in the fourth century AD – his empty marble-lined tomb can be seen at the end of the south aisle – to a large Byzantine cistern or vouta in which water, brought via an aqueduct 50km away, was stored before being distributed to the baths. Beyond this is the large Roman forum or agora (of which there’s not much left apart from a single column) and the few remains of a temple to Zeus. Returning back past the St Epiphanius basilica, then turning off towards the sea, brings you past another Byzantine building called “The Olive Press” on the plans, but whose original purpose is unknown – it was used to house an olive press in the Middle Ages. Beyond this is the Byzantine Basilica of Kampanopetra, a slightly later, fifth-century AD building.