Continuing along the road west from Salamis, takes you to the Monastery of St Barnabas, once one of the most important Christian sites on the island, now an archeological and icon museum. This handsome monastery, said to have been built as the result of a divinely inspired dream, consists of the church of St Barnabas, behind which lie the monastery cloisters: a colonnade of pillars on three sides of a lush and well-tended garden. An extension – further colonnades and a campanile – though modern, fits in pretty well with the rest of the building.
The archeological museum, housed in rooms that look out into the garden, is less than impressive – a miscellany of Neolithic axe-heads, Bronze Age pottery and Ottoman artefacts; the Icon Museum, housed in the church of St Barnabas, is a somewhat perfunctory collection of icons lit by domestic light bulbs. A few bits of the Orthodox furnishings remain in place – the pulpit, a chair, the iconostasis. Look out in particular for the four frescoes to the right of the entrance which tell the story of the finding of St Barnabas’s body. Before leaving, take a look at what is said to be the tomb of the Apostle Barnabas himself, contained in a 1950s-built mausoleum. The tomb is along a short track that heads east from the car park, past excavated rock-cut tombs, to the mausoleum’s modern steps.
One of the great figures of early Christianity, St Barnabas, was a Jew, born in Salamis, who became one of the earliest converts to the new religion and founded the Cypriot church. Together with his cousin Mark the Evangelist and the pivotal St Paul, he travelled extensively in both Cyprus and Asia Minor, spreading the gospel. In fact Barnabas was so successful that the Jewish elders in Salamis had him stoned to death around 75 AD. Mark retrieved his body and buried it secretly in a cave to the west of the city. Over time, the location of the cave was forgotten.
Four hundred years later the Cypriot Church under Archbishop Anthemios was faced with a takeover bid by Antioch, the patriarch of which claimed suzerainty over the island’s Christians – a claim supported by Byzantine Emperor Zeno. In 478 AD, when all seemed lost, Anthemios was visited in a dream by the spirit of St Barnabas, who told him where his body was buried – beneath a distinctive carob tree on the western edge of Salamis. Here Anthemios discovered a skeleton along with a copy of The Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew by St Barnabas himself. Anthemios shot off to Constantinople, donated the good book to the emperor and the Church of Cyprus was triumphantly granted autonomous or “autocephalous” status. Zeno also paid for a monastery to be built over the saint’s final resting place. The independence of the Cypriot Church was to become particularly important over a thousand years later when it was able to use its privileged position to shelter its flock from the worst excesses of Ottoman occupation.