Anticipation and speculation had been mounting for months, and the excitement in Baku over recent days had been palpable.
Preparations for the Opening Ceremony were carried out under conditions of total secrecy, with the participation of pop star Lady Gaga only revealed at the very last minute.
Baku 2015’s curtain-raiser did not disappoint, as the Olympic Stadium was transformed into a magical stage of artistry and performance, enchanting the audience, as well as viewers around the world.
The ceremony began with the traditional mugham chant of Alim Qasimov, People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, singing –
We have space in our hearts for all our guests,
We will sing 1001 songs for all those who come to this flame.
The message of greeting was followed by a firework salute and hundreds of dancers filling the main stage. A moment of pure drama then followed, as thunderous drumming announced the welcome section.
Highlights of the Journey of the Flame, Baku 2015’s torch relay, were then screened, with the final torchbearer, Ilham Zakiyev, Azerbaijan’s Paralympic Judo champion, lighting the ground beneath his feet with the Baku 2015 Flame, energising the stadium with the spirit of the Games.
The flame, drawn from the earth at Ateshgah on April 26 by President Ilham Aliyev, was symbolically returned to the ground in the Olympic Stadium following its tour around Azerbaijan, transferring the energy and passion of the entire country to the first European Games.
As energy coursed through the ground beneath the stadium, Azerbaijan’s national poet, Nizami, appeared, reciting poetry and leading the audience into a world of his imagination, in which puppet-like couple Leyli and Majnun danced on a huge set of silver and gold scales, 15 metres high and four wide, representing the sun and moon, and the duality of humankind.
Scenery then emerged from the stage, which started to rotate, taking the audience through nine themes from Nizami’s work. This section featured 300 performers and 200 trap doors which opened to reveal the scenery.
A huge pomegranate, token of abundance, rebirth, love and good luck in Azerbaijani tradition, then took centre stage, bursting open to release seeds – hundreds of ruby-coloured balloons, which floated around the stadium.
As night fell, the stadium lit up to welcome the Baku 2015 athletes to the parade, led by the 50 nations’ flagbearers.
After the Azerbaijani athletes made the final lap of the stadium, a spectacular series of fireworks erupted following the gathering of the 50 nations’ flags.
A hush then fell upon the audience, as Lady Gaga, one of the world’s most famous pop stars, performed a moving rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.
Eight Olympic gold medal winners including Katie Taylor then carried the flag of the European Olympic Committees to be raised by members of the Azerbaijani National Guard.
The Unity section followed, celebrating the work of CERN (the renowned physics research institute), its scientists, and the great achievements possible through peaceful cooperation amongst nations.
Following this, the story of princess Europa and the bull was told, while a shimmering laser map of the continent was projected onto the stage. The model bull which appeared suspended above the stage measured five metres from nose to tail.
First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, Chair of the Baku 2015 Organising Committee, addressed the audience, thanking the EOC and IOC members present, and welcoming athletes to Azerbaijan.
She spoke with pride of what the country has achieved in 24 years of independence, allowing Baku to stage the first European Games, and said that: “However far the Flame of the European Games travels in the years to come, the spirit of Azerbaijan and Baku 2015 will be there, burning brightly.”
President of the EOC, Patrick Hickey, then expressed his gratitude to President Aliyev, First Lady Aliyeva, and Azerbaijan for their contribution to European sport through the first European Games.
He went on to urge athletes “to strive for excellence and compete in the true Olympic spirit of friendship and respect.”
Alim Qasimov returned to the stage on a flying carpet, singing an improvised mugham, in the Origins: Wind and Water section. A lone woman walked along cracked, parched earth, before grass sprang up under her feet and water rose from the ground, reflecting the ancient tradition of Novruz, the first day of spring.
The next sections, Origins: Earth and Origins: Fire, celebrated these primal elements with references to Azerbaijan – the Gobustan petroglyphs, and the importance of fire to the ancient inhabitants of the country.
Origins: Eclipse then brought the story full circle, with the union of sun and moon and the couple who had featured throughout the ceremony. A message of unity and peace was expressed through the lighting of the 34-metre Caspian Eclipse cauldron, which will burn throughout the Games.
For the spectacular finale of an unforgettable night, the national dance of Azerbaijan – the Yalli – was performed as 20,000 inflatable ‘pomegranate seeds’ cascaded over the audience, while fireworks across the city lit up the skies.