Wandering along the colonnade of the Gymnasium of Salamis, Cyprus

Once a thriving port city on the island of Cyprus, the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, Salamis offers a tantalizing glimpse into the island’s vast history. The ruins of the ancient city occupy an extensive area (one square mile) extending along the seashore against the backdrop of dunes and a forest of acacias. 

According to ancient Greek tradition, Salamis was founded after the Trojan War by the archer Teukros, son of King Telamon, who came from the island of Salamis. Half-brother to the hero Ajax, Teukros, was unable to return home from the war after failing to prevent his half-brother’ suicide, leading him to flee to Cyprus, where he founded Salamis. After its legendary beginnings, Salamis later became one of the most important cities on the island and the seat of a powerful kingdom.

Archaeologists believe that Salamis was first established by newcomers from the nearby site of Enkomi following the earthquake of 1075 BC. The Persians controlled the city until the arrival of Alexander the Great into Asia Minor. Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Salamis came under the control of the Ptolemaic Dynasty until its incorporation into the Roman Empire in 58 BC. The city’s importance is reflected in archaeological findings dating back to the Late Geometric periods (8th century BC) to Byzantine times (6th century AD).

Salamis was affected by earthquakes. The AD 76 earthquake was among the most destructive, with a magnitude between 9 and 10. The second Jewish insurrection in AD 116 further devastated the city. Salamis was rebuilt by the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, who embellished it with lavish public buildings.

Map of Salamis.

The site was excavated intermittently from the 1880s until 1974, and large areas have been opened up. The most impressive monuments of the city date to the Roman period, such as the Theatre (see images here), the Temple of Zeus (Teukros established the cult of Zeus Salaminios at Salamis), and the Baths. But the ancient town’s most striking feature is the Gymnasium where the young citizens would exercise their bodies and minds. Its remains, with colonnaded courtyard and adjacent pools, allude to Salamis’ glory days.

The Gymnasium with its colonnaded palaestra.

The vast exercise ground was discovered in 1882 and finally excavated in 1952 when the marble columns were re-erected. The Gymnasium was originally laid down during the Hellenistic Period, as testified by epigraphic and archaeological evidence, but it was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt during the reign of Augustus. The Gymnasium was damaged once again under the reign of Vespasian following the earthquake of AD 76. Trajan and Hadrian restored it after the Jewish insurrection of AD 116 with a roofed colonnade along all four sides and bathing facilities.

An inscription embedded in the pavement dating from the Early Christian Period refers to the construction by Trajan of the roof of a Gymnasium swimming pool. Hadrian also contributed to the embellishment of the building, and several honorific decrees have been found which mention him as a “benefactor and saviour of the city”.

The Gymnasium with its colonnaded palaestra.

In the 4th century AD, two more earthquakes struck the area. The Byzantine emperor Constantius II partly restored the building. The marble columns crowned by Corinthian capitals of various types were taken from the stage building of the nearby Theatre and other buildings. They replaced the stone pillars of the Roman Gymnasium. This explains the mismatching of some of the columns and bases and why they differ in size. The visible remains date from these two late restorations.

The Gymnasium with its colonnaded palaestra. During the Hellenistic period, the palaestra had a small circular pool in its centre, while during the reign of Augustus, a statue of the Emperor stood there.
The centre of the Gymnasium’s palaestra, where a statue of Augustus was erected.

Two marble pools occupied the two ends of the eastern colonnade of the Gymnasium. The pools originally had a small roofed portico and were surrounded by nude statues of the gymnasiarchs, but Christians later smashed these. They have now been replaced by a collection of headless statues found at the site. The headless statues date back to the 2nd century AD, from the Trajanic and Hadrianic periods. They were probably defaced by Christian zealots who considered them symbols of pagan idolatry.

The marble pool at the NE corner of the Gymnasium’s portico is surrounded by headless statues dating back to the 2nd century AD (Trajanic/Hadrianic).
The marble pool.
A Statue of a female figure in grey marble. Its face, hands and feet were white marble insets and are now missing; this type is usually identified with Persephone.
The marble pool.

At the southwest corner of the palaestra lies the Gymnasium’s latrine, a semicircular colonnaded structure with seats for 44 people. They are the largest ever found in Cyprus.

The gymnasium’s latrines.

During excavations, several marble statues were discovered that adorned the spacious stoas of the Gymnasium. Many that had survived numerous raids have disappeared since 1974. Fortunately, some made it to Nicosias’ Cyprus Museum and are now prized exhibits.

Sculptures from the Gymnasium of Salamis, 2nd century AD. Cyprus Museum, Nicosia.

The statues date from the Hadrianic period and are of excellent quality. Sadly, few statues were found with their heads on and among these are two over-life-size statues of Hera and Apollo Citharoedus (the lyre player).

Some of the statues, such as those of Asklepios and Nemesis, were re-used, while others that were reminiscent of the ancient pagan worship, such as Isis, Zeus, Apollo and Aphrodite, were used as building material or were thrown into pits and water tanks of the Baths of the Gymnasium.

Sculptures from the Gymnasium of Salamis, 2nd century AD, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia

Salamis was destroyed by repeated earthquakes in the middle of the 4th century AD but was quickly rebuilt as a Christian city by the Byzantine emperor Constantius II who renamed the city after himself (Constantia). Salamis was finally abandoned during the Arab invasions of the 7th century after its destruction by Muawiyah I. The inhabitants moved to Arsinoë (modern-day Famagusta).

For anyone interested in ancient history, Salamis is a treasure trove of ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine remains where visitors can explore crumbling basilicas and royal tombs and wander along classical colonnades.

The Gymnasium with its columned palaestra, Salamis

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