Ancient Salamis, the first city of Cyprus in classical Greek times, boasts some of the most impressive monuments to be found on the island. The pleasantly overgrown ruins lie among fragrant eucalyptus and acacia trees, alongside an excellent though narrow beach, with safe swimming. Situated 6km north of Gazimağusa, it makes an easy visit and is readily accessible for anyone travelling in North Cyprus.

The area covered by the site is huge: so huge that although archaeologists began work here in 1890 and have continued intermittently throughout the last century, the site is still only partially excavated. Networks of roads run across it, none signposted, and it can be fairly easy to lose your way, and difficult to get an overview as the site is so flat. A few minutes studying the map will help.

Cars have been banned from driving through the site, so be prepared for some lengthy walking under a blistering sun. Take comfortable shoes, suntan lotion and a sunhat; the flat landscape offers precious little shade. Go well equipped with liquid refreshments, too, or else you may find yourself hallucinating that the marble basins in the gymnasium are still sparkling with cool water. If you don’t fancy walking much, don’t be put off: the main sites (the gymnasium and theatre) are right next to the entrance and car park.

The main sights

The gymnasium and baths

The gymnasium is the pearl of Salamis and the glimpse of lifestyle afforded here helps to convey, more than any other monument yet exposed, the magnificence and wealth that the city must have enjoyed in Hellenistic and Roman times. As you first enter along the marble pavements, you feel the elegant colonnaded courtyard must have been the forum, the marketplace and heart of the city, rather than simply an outbuilding devoted to education and the culture of the body, the ancient Greek version of a school and health centre. It is now thought that there were originally three gymnasia, two for boys and one for girls.

The baths at Salamis are adorned with intricate mosaics © kirill makarov, Shutterstock

The columns of the porticoes were re-erected in the 1950s by the excavators, and on close examination the apparent harmony of the whole reveals its mixed origins, for it was destroyed and rebuilt many times in its history. In the east portico, for example, the Corinthian capitals are too small for their columns, which are taller and larger than this on the other three sides, presumably brought from somewhere else in the city by the later Byzantine builders.

The Hellenistic and Roman latrines are situated in the southwest corner of the palaestra, and are the largest on the island. Arranged in a semicircle, with open-plan seating for 44, they strike us today, with our prudishly solitary cubicles, as most improper. The puritanical Christians of the 4th century, too, considered them indecent, and had them walled up.

The theatre

The theatre was not discovered until 1959 and archaeologists have now rebuilt it to under half its original height, 18 of the 50 rows of seats. Of these, only the first few rows are original, and the division is clear where their white limestone casing gives way to the brown limestone used in the reconstruction. Badly damaged in the earthquakes of the 4th century, many of its original stones and decorative blocks were carted off for reuse in other buildings. The marble tiles of its orchestra, for example, were taken off to renovate the nearby baths after an earthquake.

The theatre at Salamis was not discovered until 1959 © Irina Papoyan, Shutterstock

The channel in the middle of the orchestra was the drainage for blood from animals sacrificed to Dionysus before each performance. With an original seating capacity of between 15,000 and 20,000 it is far and away the largest theatre in Cyprus, reflecting the fact that Salamis was the foremost city on the island for much of its history. Eschewing blood-letting, these days the theatre again hosts crowds for regular music and theatre performances.

The forums, basilicas and other ruins 

Although the theatre and gymnasium together form the most impressive part of Salamis, there are plenty of other ruins in the area that are worth visiting. A circular tour of the other major sites can be made if you have the time (a minimum of 1½–2 hrs) and energy (to walk the 5km or so). Taking a left at every junction should ensure you cover most of Salamis.

After the gymnasium and theatre area, the next most impressive section of ruins at Salamis is to be found beside the old Roman harbour. To reach it, you head south from the theatre and fork left at the first junction of tarmac roads. Passing the sorry remains of a Roman villa, take the next left. Some 100m or so after this junction, on the left of the road, is an underground Byzantine cistern with paintings on the walls, now kept locked. The key is held by the Gazimağusa Department of Antiquities, beside the Namık Kemal prison. The cistern consists of three interconnecting chambers, in one of which are faded water scenes of fish and sea plants with a bearded Christ above. Access involves descending a ladder with torches (supplied).

The Stone Forum, St Epiphanius and the Granite Forum 

Though these last ruins are unexcavated, they remain impressive and for those with the time it is pleasant to stroll around the ancient city to find them, enjoying the gentle breeze which blows in the fragrant eucalyptus trees. In spring and early summer, the walk across the gentle rise and fall of the land, alive with the yellow blossom of acacia mimosa, is especially lovely.

Salamis is home to all manner of ruins © Peter Fuchs, Shutterstock

Most memorable, perhaps, is the Agora or Stone Forum, thought to be the largest forum or marketplace in the entire Roman Empire, with origins going back to the Hellenistic period. On the way to the forum you will come, on your right, to the foundations of St Epiphanius, the largest basilica in Cyprus. It was built in 345 AD, just after the earthquakes, by Epiphanius, the Bishop of Constantia. Utterly devastated as it is, the church still conveys its vastness. Salamis has an important place in the early history of Christianity, and St Barnabas himself was born here.