A Short History of Cyprus
Before describing our adventures in Ancient Salamis, I must first talk a little bit about Cypriot history and politics on the island. To begin, the island was formerly under British control (it was formally annexed from the Ottoman Empire in 1914). From 1955 to 1959, Greek Cypriots created the EOKA campaign to create a union with Greece. The struggle instead led to an independent republic, The Republic of Cyprus, in 1960. The new constitution put in place a power-sharing government between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Internal conflicts between these two groups turned into full-fledged fighting leading the United Nations to send peacekeeping forces in 1964. In 1974, there was a Greek coup and a few days later, Turkish forces landed in Kyrenia taking over 37% of the island. Most of the 200,000 Greek Cypriots who then lived in the North were evacuated or fled to the South while the 100,000 Turkish Cypriots fled or were forcibly evacuated to the North. In 1983, the North declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), but has been recognized only by Turkey. Since then, there have been multiple reunification talks, but all have failed. However, tensions have cooled making crossing the border easier on either side. Ancient Salamis lies near the city of Famagusta in the North meaning we got to experience this island division first-hand.
Crossing the Border
Though crossing the border is much easier than in previous years, there are still some difficulties for tourists unfamiliar with the process. As we were staying in the split capital of Nicosia, we chose to cross through the driving checkpoint of Ayios Dhometios, about a 10 minute drive. It took us a bit longer the first time, however, because the actual checkpoint was hard to see while driving and it was only accessible from one side of the road. Our next difficulty came about because we were using a rental car. In order to drive said car into the North, we had to buy insurance. Unfortunately, the way the process works, you have to hand over your passports to the passport control office, park the car further down the way, then walk back through the line of other cars to buy insurance (€20 for three days). Once you have the stamped paper, you need walk back up to the passport control and give them your information and the insurance whereupon they enter it all into their system before giving back your passports unstamped. After this process is complete, you are free to drive into the North.
After going through the Green Zone, it is abundantly clear which side of the island you are on. At each roundabout, there are statues celebrating the TRNC with flags from both the TRNC and Turkey flying everywhere. On the hills behind the city of Nicosia are the two flags made of rocks as well. Another difference is how empty it feels outside of the main cities, though there are huge new communities built here and there. Driving-wise, there are a lot more speed cameras, located at every intersection. Finally, there is a lot less importance put on tourism, meaning less signs in addition to less support regarding upkeep.
Salamis was a Greek city-state on the east coast of Cyprus dating back to the 11th century B.C. According to legend, the founder of Salamis was Teucer who could not return after the Trojan War because he had failed to avenge his brother Ajax. Archaeologists tend to believe that the first inhabitants of the town came here from Enkomi following an earthquake in 1075 B.C. Earthquakes were a consistent problem in the area, disturbing the development of Salamis especially in the first and fourth centuries A.D. The city was rebuilt and renamed Constantia by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius II (337-361 A.D.), but by this time the harbour had been silted up and Arab pirates had begun raiding the coastline. In 648, after another raid, the last inhabitants moved to Arsinoe, otherwise known as modern-day Famagusta.
The site begins with the gymnasium and baths. There were two swimming pools decorated with marble statues in addition to latrines and two octagonal cold rooms.
There were also numerous remains of mosaics and frescoes decorating the baths. On the south wall of the central sweating room is a fresco piece surviving from the third century A.D. It shows Hylas, the friend of Heracles who gets lost in Mysia on the way to Colchis to bring the Golden Fleece, as he refuses the water nymphs.
Across from the baths was the columned courtyard that served as an exercising ground.
At the end of the baths was the aqueduct.
A short walk away was the theatre, the present day ruins dating from the time of Augustus (31 B.C.-14 A.D.). Its auditorium originally consisted of 50 rows of seats and held over 15,000 spectators. After it was destroyed by earthquakes in the fourth century A.D., it was never rebuilt and served as building material for other constructions.
All throughout the complex were various reminders that this was once a large city. Ruins of Roman villas were spread across the site in addition to roads and marketplaces.
Once the largest basilica in Cyprus, the Ayios Epiphanios Basilica was built as the metropolitan church of Salamis during the office of Bishop Epiphanios (386-403 A.D.) whose tomb still lies encased in marble in front of the southern apse. The church was destroyed in the seventh century during the Arab raids.
The last main site we saw was the Temple of Zeus. The present day ruins belong to the Roman period temple which was built on an earlier Hellenistic one. While it is now totally destroyed, the columns left behind show how big the temple would have been.
Walking in a loop around the whole site took us a few hours, leaving us pretty hungry by the time we were done. We got lunch at the restaurant right outside the entrance before getting back in the car to continue our time in Northern Cyprus.