The site of the ancient city of SOLI has few equals in north Cyprus, possibly on the whole island, thanks to its instant comprehensibility and the quality of information provided. It offers a detailed picture of life in late Roman and early Byzantine times, in a city set on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.
You’ll find the site just after leaving Gemikonaği, travelling west on the coast road. Look out for a small sign pointing to the left just after the announcement that you’re in Yedidalga (Potamos). The sign is easy to miss, but the huge roof covering part of the site isn’t.
Soli was originally settled in the eleventh century BC – its first mention in written records is as “Si-il-lu” in an Assyrian tribute list. According to legend, it was named after the Athenian philosopher Solon, who, while visiting his friend King Philocypros, suggested he built a new capital here, pointing out the excellent natural harbour and fertile soil. Soli soon flourished, though siding with the Ionians against the Persians led to it being sacked in 498 BC. Biblical scholars will also recall Soli as the site of St Mark’s baptism by St Auxibius, and it soon became an important Christian centre, particularly once the Edict of Milan (313 AD) had legalized the religion throughout the Byzantine empire. By the seventh century, however, the harbour was silting up, and a succession of Arab raids, especially the one in 653 AD, led to a gradual decline, such that by the ninth century AD Soli had been abandoned.
Soli is vast, and only part of it has been excavated. Once you’ve parked and bought your ticket (get hold of a plan) you’ll see the ruins of the third-century AD Roman town down the hill to the right – the agora, a portico, the remains of a nymphaeum – and immediately ahead the remains of the great Byzantine basilica, protected by a roof, and with wooden walkways to allow visitor access. In fact, the remains you can see are of two basilicas – Basilica A, dating from the fourth century, and Basilica B from the sixth century. Basilica A had a wooden roof supported on stone columns, and had mosaic floors, some geometrical, others with the figures of birds and dolphins. The most famous of these representations is of a swan against a blue background, with flowers, dolphins and a duck. In the apse is a dedication: “Jesus, protect those who had these mosaics made”. Basilica B was built entirely of stone, and instead of mosaics made of cuboid tesserae was floored with opus sectile tiles (larger pieces specifically shaped for the job). Though the mosaics take pride of place, other parts of the basilicas are also explained – a presbytery, an atrium, a column which still lies where it fell in the eighth century AD, and the “Mystery of Soli” – a staircase or ramp leading down to what’s thought to be a tomb dedicated to St Auxibius or even a treasure house (unfortunately sealed off).
Up the hill behind the basilica is an early third-century AD Roman theatre, extensively renovated and sometimes still used for performances. There’s very little left of the original masonry – the British pilfered most of it for use in the building of the Suez Canal and Port Said.