Ancient City Buried Under Sand

Ancient cities can be a window into the past of human society and Salamis serves as a reminder of the great cities that existed in antiquity and an indicator of how far we have come in the past few centuries.

Salamis was believed to have been the capital of Cyprus as far back as 1100 BC, in the late Bronze Age.

A large city located on the eastern side of the island north of Famagusta, it survived successive occupations by many dominant groups over the course of its history, including Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians and Romans, but eventually succumbed to the forces of nature.

Today this site extends over an area of one square mile extending along the North Cyprus coast and inland, revealing a glimpse back into time whilst still hiding its core, buried and yet revealed. 

Origins

One tradition claims Salamis was founded by tribes arriving from Anatolia during a period of migration near the end of the Bronze Age, who were joined by Achaeans arriving from Cilicia.

According to Homeric legend, Salamis was founded by archer Teucer from the Trojan War – the son of King Telamon whose second wife Hesione was daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. This lineage made Teucer the cousin of the legendary Hector and Paris of Troy, however Teucer fought against them in the Trojan War.

History

It is thought that the city was originally restricted to a small area round the harbour, and gradually expanded, particularly from around 1100 BC, after the populated village of Tuzla, the trading centre of copper was abandoned following a massive earthquake and its inhabitants moved to Salamis.

Until the end of the fourth century it ruled over a tract of country far more extensive and fertile than that possessed by any other town on the island.

The first coins minted in Salamis were in the 6th century BC during the ruling of the Persian Empire, until the march of Alexander the Great into Asia Minor. However, his early death resulted in the empire being split, with Cyprus falling to Ptolomy and the fortunes of this city began to wane.

During the Roman periods, Salamis again became an important trading centre with ships arriving from all over the world, making it a major hub of activity. Although Paphos was the official capital of the island, Salamis was the most important commercial city, stretching two kilometres along the shoreline and a kilometre inland. Most of the excavations at Salamis today reveal remains dating from this time.

For many years, the city was also treated as a source of building materials, and during the Venetian period, many columns and pieces of sculpture were removed from the site. Shifting sands however encompassed most of the city and protected it from the hands of looters. The first real scaled excavations commenced in the 1950’s. 

Natural Disasters

Salamis has left a unique legacy of its many ancient inhabitants, even though the area has suffered a series of natural disasters that have all but destroyed the city.

After earthquakes in 76 -77 AD, a Jewish uprising proclaimed much damage. After their revolt was crushed in Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Romans, many Jews settled in Cyprus, particularly in Salamis. When they rebelled again in AD 116, the ensuing carnage over the next two years impaired the city.

Further earthquakes in 332 and 342 AD followed by a series of tidal waves left the region in disarray. Byzantine Emperor Constantius II rebuilt a smaller city, naming it Constantia after himself, which became the capital of Cyprus from 368 – 403 AD.

However, natural forces continued to prevent the city from prospering and by 647 AD, it was ultimately destroyed after the Arab invasions.

Ironically however mother nature has helped preserve the site, as it lay undiscovered under layers of sand for hundreds of years. For this reason, it is also often compared to Pompeii, the Roman city buried under metres of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. 

The ancient ruins conjure up scenes akin to The Odyssey, and perhaps even Homer had this site in mind when he penned his epic adventure.

Salamis is also believed to have been the first stop on Saint Paul’s first journey after heading out from Antioch of Syria, considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age.

Gymnasium

The centre of Salamis during the Roman period was to the north of the city, where the present-day entrance to this enormous site is located. Excavations so far include the gymnasium and theatre which have been extensively renovated.

The Gymnasium is the most impressive ruin at Salamis. Following the great earthquake of 76 AD, it was built by the great Roman Emperor Trajan and his cousin Hadrian, who also went on to build the former defensive fortification of the Roman province of Britannia, commonly known as Hadrian’s Wall.

On the floor at the southern entrance to this area, an inscription of the middle Hellenistic date appears to attest to the existence of other gymnasiums on the same site, in the north of the city.

An inscription on the east colonnade indicates the area was used as a garden. 

Statues surround the two swimming pools which were later additions, at the north and south ends of the square which is itself was surrounded on all four sides by Corinthian columned arcades. 

With its colonnaded Palaestra, the next wave of earthquakes in 331 AD knocked part of this structure. The remaining parts of the building still visible today show columns of different sizes and it is thought that a second set of columns from the Roman Theatre were brought after this natural disaster, explaining the mismatching of some of the columns and bases.

Numerous statues are displayed in the central court of the gymnasium – however most are headless, and it is assumed that earthquakes dislodged the heads and were subsequently taken by souvenir hunters during early archaeological excavations. 

In the south west corner, there are latrines (toilets) set in a semi-circle with a 44-person maximum capacity. The piping and water tanks are still visible, as are the armrests on one side. There is another set of latrines in the opposite corner, but not as well preserved.

Roman Amphitheatre

South of the gymnasium, the outdoor theatre is another impressive ruin at the ancient site.

The theatre of Salamis lay undiscovered till 1959. At that time, the decision was made to renovate it so that it could be once again used for theatrical performances, a role which it maintains to this day.

Probably built under the reign of Augustus during the first years of the Roman Empire and finished during the second century AD, there are many beautiful artefacts in its vicinity as well.

Unlike most other Roman theatres which face towards the sea, this one uniquely faces inland. Furthermore, its structure is unusual in that Roman theatres were normally built into a convenient hill, which made construction much easier, however this site at Salamis is free-standing. 

The auditorium’s seating area or caveawas constructed out of limestone and supported by arches – only a few of the original seats survive today, with eight rows of fifty seats remaining in this 15,000-seating capacity build.

The stage building holds various rooms and corridors for orchestras and actors and would also have served as the backdrop for performances.

An alter devoted to the ancient Greek god of wine, Dionysus, with cylindrical bases dedicated to Marcus Aurelius Commodus, Caesar Constantius and Caesar Maximian are centre to the stage. The area in front of the stage would have been allocated for guests of honour.

Headless marble statues have also been excavated on the outskirts of the theatre which also date to the Roman era. It is believed that many of these statues may have been defaced by Christians who renounced all aspects of the Roman pagan tradition. When Christianity was adopted as a state religion, all these nude statues were to them an abhorrence and were vandalised or destroyed. In fact, any indications of Roman pagan religion such as mosaic pictures were also defaced or destroyed.

Today this ancient theatre is also home to classical music concerts and jazz festivals amongst other unique occasions, needless to say in very unique historic settings, and as hosted performers as diverse as Boney M and Jose Carreras. Keep up to date on our listings page for upcoming events and your visit to NCY just might coincide with a formidable night to treasure.

The Roman Villa

South of the theatre and visitors will come across the remains of a two-floor villa. Although excavated in 1882, it is now mostly under the earth, therefore it is one of those ruins where you will have to let your imagination run free!

The entrance was similar in design to a church apse, adorned with columns which had a central inner courtyard featuring a columned portico.

Living rooms were located either side of the courtyard, and during excavations, a platform with a mosaic floor was discovered, decorated with animal motifs surrounding a central figure.  

After the city was abandoned, this build was used as an olive mill. The large stone mill which was used to crunch olives in the reception hall was discovered, along with mill stones and straining devices.

The Byzantine Water Cistern (Vouta)

Located at the northern end of the Agora, this Byzantine water cistern is an impressive piece of antiquity, believed to have been built around 627 – 640 AD.

A city the size of Salamis required a large supply of water, and although initially local sources sufficed, by Byzantine times, the city had to resolve the issue of a shortage.

A village in the foothills of the Besparmak mountains named Degirmenlik, built around a stream which did not dry up for thousands of years and 45 kilometres from Salamis, proved a major supply.  

A system of earthenware pipes and aqueducts were built to bring water from Degirmenlik to the city of Salamis, to be stored in this huge water tank, one of the largest stone cisterns in Cyprus.

The walls and the remains of the 36 square pillars of the cistern have survived today. Remains of the aqueducts can be seen at the neighbouring village of Yenibogazici.

Another Byzantine cistern, near the Roman Villa, displays fragments of Christian paintings. Comprised of three sections that open into each other, writings dating back to 6 AD have been discovered on one of the murals. The main panel of the cistern depicts a water scene of fish and plants with the image of Jesus Christ inscribed above.

The Agora

This stone forum situated alongside the Vouta was a meeting place and market of Salamis.

It dates back to Hellenistic times but is thought to have been restored about 22BC during the time of Augustus, determined from an inscription on a rediscovered grey marble frieze.

The agora was common to all Roman cities. A large rectangular space with columned arcades, it offered protection from the blazing sun and rain in harsher conditions.

Measuring 230 x 55 metres, this forum at Salamis is one of the largest known.

On the two long sides there were stoas, roofed colonnades, where shops selling luxury or expensive items were located. Only one of these columns have survived to the present day.

The agora was open to everyone, both citizens and slaves, unlike the gymnasium and baths, which were restricted only to residents. Whilst women frequented the outdoor market to shop, men would meet here to discuss politics or events of the day.

Locally produced goods included fruit, grain, olives, wine, fish, and vegetables alongside more exotic items coming through the port of Salamis and traded hands at this site many hundreds of years ago. 

The Temple of Zeus

The main temple of Salamis was located to the south of the Agora. Limited excavation has been undertaken to date here, so again some imagination is required when visiting this area of the city.

Also known as the Temple of Zeus Salaminios, its cult was established by Teucer himself and therefore must have existed since the foundation of the city.

The primacy of the temple was confirmed during the Roman period by Tacitus, the historian and senator who records that in 22AD, the emperor Augustus granted the temple the right to grant asylum.

Over the next two hundred years, the cult of Zeus increasingly became associated with the island’s identity as a Roman territory. The remains of the temple that we can see today are from this Roman period.

The temple precinct was identified in the late 19th century, and a brief excavation was undertaken in the 1970’s. During the excavations, inscriptions were found honouring Livia, the wife of Augustus, and dedicating the temple to Zeus Salaminios.

Its plan featured a raised temple that stood at the end of a vast porticoed court, dominating the whole city. Built out of limestone, it stood on a high podium measuring roughly 28 x 22 metres. The porch was decorated by twelve freestanding columns and was accessed via a stepped ramp from the Agora.

Early excavators also discovered in the esplanade of the temple an enormous marble capital carved on each side with a caryatid figure standing between the foreparts of winged bulls. Now in the British Museum’s collection in London, the function of the capital remains unclear, although it does indicate influence from Achaemenid art and is consequently dated to between 300 and 250 BC.

The Campanopetra Basilica

Constructed during the early Christian period around the 4th century AD, the Campanopetra basilica occupies a magnificent position overlooking the sea, not far from the harbour.

It consisted of a large colonnaded rectangular courtyard with porticos on all sides, adjoining a three-aisled basilica on the west. A well is located within the courtyard, and in the central apse a bishop’s lectern and seating for the other clergy.

Behind the apse are remains of a sweating room which suggest a bath. A further room boasts impressive mosaics in an opus sectiletechnique, an art popularised in the Roman world where materials were cut and inlaid into walls and floors to create a picture or pattern, commonly using marble, mother of pearl and glass.  

The Basilica of St. Epiphanios

Once the largest basilica in Cyprus, Epiphanios can be found a little beyond the Roman Villa.

It was built around 400 AD as the metropolitan church of Constantia by the Bishop of Salamis, St. Epiphanios. An impressive monument, it held three aisles on either side of the central nave separated by two rows of stone columns. At one end there is a triple-arched semi-circular apse with seats for the bishop and clergy. Rooms on either side of the apse are believed to be allocated for dressing and storage.  

Hypocaust remains in the baptistery lead us to believe that baptisms were carried out in the winter with warm water, as well as in the summer.

By the southern wall of the basilica where it meets the Campanopetra Basilica is an empty marble sarcophagus, a stone coffin with inscriptions. This is believed to be the tomb of the bishop whose remains were removed to Constantinople by the emperor Leo at the time of the Arab raids.

The church was destroyed during the Arab raids in the 7th century and replaced by a smaller building to the south.

The Roman Baths

Though they have not been fully excavated, the Roman baths to the east of the gymnasium still display many Roman artefacts.

The Romans had an obsession with baths – they were structures of grandeur, with a complex of marble-lined pools, fountains and hot and cold rooms.

Visitors can make out the Caldarium (hot plunge bath), Frigidarium (cold pool) and the Sudatorium – vaulted sweating-rooms of the Roman baths which were adopted and developed by the Ottoman’s to be the modern day hammamor Turkish baths.

Between the two cold pools was the central sweating room where you can see the underfloor heating cavity. On the south wall of this Sudatorium, a fresco surviving from the 3rd century AD shows Hylas, who in classical mythology was a youth who served as Heracles’ companion, servant, as well as lover.

The sweating room leads to the hot water Caldarium, which has been partially restored, and a dank, crypt-like cavity can be entered under its flooring, where visitors can view mosaics. A patch of abstracts and floral motifs is to be found in a niche of the north wall. The baths were flanked by two more sweating rooms, where there are more mosaics. In the northern room, you can see one of three pomegranates on a branch.

The most complete pieces are to be found in the southern Sudatorium, rare works from the end of the third or early 4th century AD, just before Christianity became the state religion.

One mosaic represents a battle between man and the Amazons, the second shows Leda, disguised as a swan with the river god Eurotas. In Greek mythology, Leda was an Aetolian princess who became a Spartan queen. Her myth gave rise to the popular motif in Renaissance and later art of Leda and the Swan.

Walls and Harbour

Walls protected Salamis to the north, south and west, and another has been discovered since in the old town centre.

It is thought this was constructed in the 7th century to protect the town from Arab raids.

To the southeast of the town lies the oldest harbour of Salamis which was protected by artificial breakwaters to the north and south. A second harbour to the north of town was generally used for military purposes in the late Roman era.   

Look out to sea and visitors will see a long reef that lies parallel to the shore, forming a lagoon to the south. The two harbours which were excavated in 1971 and 1973 were at the north and south of this lagoon.

During the excavations, two roads were discovered, one parallel to the modern shore and a second one meeting it. Towards the south of the lagoon area, architectural remains were found, indicating that at the time of construction, the land level was higher. There was quite an area of silting, leading to the belief that there is still much to be discovered in this area.

There is also some evidence that the city wall extended along the breakwaters of the two harbours, and possibly the natural ridge which separated the lagoon from the sea, forming an enclosed harbour.

Tombs

The city also contains large arched tombs, dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries BC. Constructed from fine cut masonry and mud brick, the tombs provide a glimpse into the social hierarchy of the ancient residents of the city. In this era, during a burial, the horse and chariot from the procession would be sacrificed in front of the tomb, a common ritual for funerals.

Findings

Mysteries of the ancient city have been discovered over time. The finding of important relics and gold coins dating from 411 to 374 BC were the first genuine evidence of the city’s archaeological importance, providing researchers a glimpse into the city’s important wealth during ancient times. Important archaeological collections are kept in the St. Barnabas Monastery.

Although treasures have been found, some of which are also displayed at the British Museum in London, more excavations at this site forested with mimosa, pine and eucalyptus trees are sure to uncover many further lost secrets from ancient Cyprus.

Visit Salamis

Although the city predominantly still remains buried under the sands, this site is very impressive and very worthy of a historical visit. The necropolis of Salamis to the west of the town, houses some of Salamis’s finds and is well worth visiting for a complete overview of the site.

If ruins could talk, Salamis would have a million tales to tell – who knows in time with further studies and excavations, what findings will be revealed.

This site should be near to the top of your Visit NCY must-see list, and an allocation of a good two hours will be necessary not to miss all features from the ancient city. The St. Barnabas Monastery named after one of the earliest Christian disciples born in Salamis is across the main road and should be added to the list when visiting Salamis.