On 30 September the very spirit of Byzantium will be rekindled in Athens with the official opening of "Hagia Sophia", the new football stadium of AEK Athens, in Nea Filadelfeia.
The club, founded in 1924 by a group of refugees from Constantinople and other parts of Turkey following the mass expulsion of the Greeks in the wake of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, is one of Greece’s oldest clubs and has a rich history and traditions.
Greek-backed sporting clubs had prospered in Constantinople and after the catastrophe many Constantinopolitan and Anatolian refugees wanted to form a sporting club in Athens that would reflect their values and honour their culture and art.
In 1926, land in the Athens suburb of Nea Filadelfeia - itself a neighbourhood of refugees - which was originally set aside for migrant housing, was donated as a training ground for the refugees' sports activities and it eventually led to the building of the Nikos Goumas stadium that was to be AEK’s home ground until it was demolished in 2003.
After many delays and administrative road blocks, construction of the new stadium finally commenced in 2017 and has taken five years to build.
A week before the opening I was in Athens and I visited the new stadium where finishing work was still going on. It was a Sunday afternoon and I witnessed many AEK faithful approach the stadium, often reverently and some (like me) in awe of this superb monumental structure. It was almost like a pilgrimage. For true AEK fans it is their historical destiny.
Around the corner in a park there is a modernist sculpture – a commemorative memorial to the refugees from Asia Minor – that now looks towards the new stadium. The Monument of Asia Minor Refugees and Unforgotten Homelands (Πάρκο/Μνημείο Μικρασιατών & Αλησμόνητων Πατρίδων) is a poignant memorial site which, as one commentator has written, holds literally the very materiality of Asia Minor as soil from the lost homeland rests in its crypt.
The new "Hagia Sophia" Stadium echoes those sentiments.
But it is not just a football ground. Dimitris Melissanidis, the club’s President and his group, mindful of AEK’s deep historical roots, wanted the stadium to be not just another sporting arena but also a cultural and historical centre in honour of the refugees and migrants who crossed the Aegean almost 100 years to restart their lives in Greece.
Even the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew contributed to the fund for the construction of the stadium because of its immense historical significance and symbolism.
The designer of the stadium, the acclaimed Greek architect Athanassios Kyratsous, accepted the brief and came up with a design that in his own words learns from and respects the past and embraces the future.
The result is a stadium that incorporates some distinctive elements of Byzantine architecture. The external walls borrow from the fortifications of Constantinople. There is a majestic monumental entrance as well as four massive towers supporting the steel roof and radial beams from the outside so as to avoid the need for supports obstructing the view of the fans.
The main entrance is announced by a large byzantine double-headed eagle – the team’s official emblem - that soars over a replica of the Church of Hagia Sophia. The words “One Team. One History” are emblazoned over the entrance and resonate throughout the building.
Amongst the facilities will be the AEK History Museum, a Museum of Greek Refugees, a small church of Hosios Loukas (in honour of the former president of AEK Luke Barlos) as well as a restaurant, café, and traditional barbershop. Not to mention state of the art sporting facilities.
The stands feature images of four of AEK Athens’ most famous players of the past, including the legendary striker, Tomas Mavros.
But it is the external features of the stadium that hark back to the humble origins of the club. As you walk around the stadium you come across large displays on the walls below each tower recalling the refugee crisis, the sacrifices and the suffering that was endured by so many in the wake of the 1922 catastrophe.
All entrances to the venue will bear the names of historical Greek cities in Asia Minor except for Gate 21 which is emblematic of the group of original hardcore AEK fans founded in 1975 after the fall of the Greek dictatorship.
AEK Athens. One Team. One History.
The dikefaloi (as AEK is popularly known) are back in their natural environment.
The Byzantine double-headed eagle has finally landed.
George Vardas is the Arts and Culture Editor and is an unabashed AEK Athens tragic.