Azerbaijan and its capital Baku have hosted the grandiose opening of the First European Games.
Tickets have sold out as the Olympic Stadium was ready to celebrate the culture and history of Azerbaijan with a once-in-a-lifetime showcase of entertainment and sport.
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.
His vocal led to rhythmic drumming and a countdown from 24 to zero.
As the countdown neared zero, the drumming built to a musical climax with 50 drummers. The stadium was ablaze with fireworks and nearly 1,000 female dancers filled the entire main stage with their skirts of vibrant geometric patterns and decorative motifs, taken from the country’s world-famous carpets.
With a final swish of their skirts, the dancers created the Azerbaijani flag. Fireworks shot up from the stage, reaching twice the height of the stadium.
A fanfare drew attention to the Presidential Box and welcomed President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, First Lady, Chair of Baku 2015 European Games Organising Committee Mehriban Aliyeva and President of the European Olympic Committees Patrick Hickey.
The flag of Azerbaijan was carried by eight and raised by three servicemen of the National Guard of the Special State Protection Service.
High level foreign guests at the Opening Ceremony included President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Russia Vladimir Putin, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, President of Montenegro Filip Vujanovic, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Mladen Ivanic, Grand Duke of Luxembourg Henri, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Mosaad Abdulaziz, President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, ISESCO Director General Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, as well as high ranking officials from San-Marino, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Iran, Ukraine, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and other countries, outstanding public, political and sport figures.
The audience then stood for the national anthem – a two-minute orchestral version played by the Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra.
Stadium screens showed the Journey of the Flame across Azerbaijan.
The journey ended this evening as the final torchbearer, Ilham Zakiyev, entered the stadium. He was accompanied by Said Guliyev.
As they moved towards the centre, the ground beneath them was cracked earth, like Azerbaijani landscapes found around mud volcanoes.
At the centre, Said Guliyev raised a boulder to reveal a pit in the earth. As Ilham Zakiyev lit a fire in there, his torch was extinguished. The pit was covered over again and as they left, there were glimpses of fire or lava flowing through the cracks in the earth. This new energy under the ground will power the rest of the Ceremony.
The fire flowing through cracks in the earth swept towards a man standing at the edge of the stage and awakened him like a ghost or hologram.
He was the poet Nizami, holding a set of scales with two puppet figures. As we heard an extract from his poetry, he led us into the world of his imagination.
When Nizami spins his small scales, a huge set of scales slowly spun over the centre of the stadium.
A puppet woman was dancing on the silver disc (the moon) while a puppet man was dancing on the gold one (the sun).
The puppet couple were Leyli and Majnun, a pair of star-crossed lovers from one of the best-known stories in Azerbaijani literature, also told by the poet Nizami.
They orbited each other and yearned to be with each other, but dance apart and never come together.
Three hundred performers appeared on a ring around the stage.
The ring suddenly filled with colour as scenery rose from below – images from the centuries-old tradition of miniatures painting.
The ring started to revolve, like an enormous music box or carousel. The performers – dressed and fully made-up to look like characters from the miniature paintings – brought the vibrant layered landscapes to life, moving like puppets.
Nizami led us through scenes based on nine themes in his work – from ‘Seven Beauties’ to ‘Paradise’.
Once the ring turned full circle, a pomegranate tree rose from below and Nizami picked one of the fruit. Suddenly, everything freezed.
The miniatures world around Nizami disappeared below the stage, and the performers slowly left.
Nizami held a pomegranate in his hand. We then discovered a huge pomegranate – a token of abundance, rebirth, love and good luck, and a symbol of Azerbaijan – slowly flying into the centre of the stadium.
The pomegranate split open to release its seeds – hundreds of ruby-like balloons float around the stadium.
In Nizami’s poetic universe, pomegranates burst open from an excess of love – like our pomegranate this evening.
The flying pomegranate seeds created a festive atmosphere to welcome the athletes for the Parade of Nations to come.
For the nearly 6,000 athletes from 50 National Olympic Committees this was the moment when the hard work and training was behind them and the excitement of the Games ahead – 20 sports, 18 venues, 253 medal events.
The Parade of Nations was led by Greece to honour the birthplace of the Olympics. Other teams followed in alphabetical order, with the exception of the host nation who conclude the parade. So this evening, that was Team Azerbaijan.
The athletes paraded around the central stage, before taking their seats in the stands to watch the rest of the Ceremony.
Russia has the largest squad of 359 athletes at the Games. President Vladimir Putin rose to greet Russian athletes.
The Olympic Stadium cheered 190 Turkish athletes, who were also greeted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan.
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.
At the end of the Parade, an energetic drum beat, played by 50 drummers, accompanied a choreography with the flags that took them to their final positions. 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 then carried the flag of the European Olympic Committees to be raised by members of the Azerbaijani National Guard. While, the 50 placard bearers revolved on the ring around the stage. When the flag arrived at the flag pole, it was transferred to eight members of the armed forces and raised by three additional members.
One flag representing all 50 members of the European Olympic Committees gathered here tonight.
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. For 60 years, CERN has brought together nations in peace through science. These European Games are a new flame of international unity through sport.
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.
In myth, Europa was a Phoenician princess. The Greek god Zeus liked the girl and appeared to her on a beach in the form of a beautiful white bull. Charmed, Europa climbed onto the bull’s back and Zeus stole her away, crossing the sea with the girl on his back to arrive at the Greek island of Crete, on the southern tip of Europe. There, she bore Zeus three children, including Minos, the legendary founder of the first literate European civilisation. Europe was named after this mythical princess, and the image of Europa on the Bull is a symbol of the continent.
This segment marked the official opening of the first ever European Games.
First Lady, Chair of the Baku 2015 European Games Organising Committee Mehriban Aliyeva delivered a speech.
Speech by Mehriban Aliyeva:
-Your Excellency, Ilham Aliyev, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
President of the European Olympic Committees, Patrick Hickey.
President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.
Your Excellencies, European Games athletes,
Ladies and gentlemen.
Welcome to Azerbaijan – welcome to the inaugural European Games.
I congratulate wholeheartedly the entire people of Azerbaijan on the occasion of the first European Games.
This spectacular celebration is the victory of independent Azerbaijan and each Azerbaijani citizen.
As a result of successes and achievements gained by us in independence years, today, here, a new page is being written in the European Olympic movement history in the beautiful city of Baku.
This page is being written by us. It is written by the people of Azerbaijan! May God bless Azerbaijan at all times.
Tonight, we begin a new chapter in Europe’s sporting history.
Azerbaijan is proud that the first European Games are being held in Baku.
At the sacred temple of Ateshgah, the European Games’ Flame was lit and has travelled across our beautiful country touching the hearts of every Azerbaijani along the way.
It has carried a message of celebration, inspiration and unity.
It is the burning spirit that brings us all together.
I would like to thank the European Olympic Committees and its President Patrick Hickey.
For not only choosing Baku to host the first European Games but also for his support and assistance in organising this memorable event.
I would also like to welcome the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, and the members of the Olympic family, and thank them for their continued support of the Olympic movement in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is a country rich in history, culture and traditions.
Multiculturalism and tolerance, friendship and hospitality, harmony and solidarity are an integral part of Azerbaijani life.
This year we host the European Games.
In 2017, we will host the Islamic Solidarity Games.
This demonstrates Azerbaijan’s role in the promotion of a dialogue between cultures.
As an independent state, we are young, only 24 years old, so it is fitting that tonight’s Ceremony Countdown started from this number.
The last 24 years have seen the rapid development, progress and modernisation of our country.
Azerbaijan’s economic stability and sustainable development have allowed us to host such a big sporting event.
We have delivered these Games with only two and a half years to prepare, overcoming the obstacle of such a limited time through our dedication and hard work.
I would like to thank all those who have worked with energy, commitment and passion to make these Games a reality.
I would also like to thank all our international partners and the many local and international volunteers.
Our team is a clear example of mutual co-operation, understanding and friendship.
Tonight we welcome almost 6,000 of Europe’s finest athletes to our land.
Dear athletes, these Games are for you. You are the first participants.
You will be the first champions of the European Games.
The whole country of Azerbaijan has come together to support you.
For 17 days, Baku will be your home away from home.
Tonight, I stand here proud and moved by the people of our country and all we have achieved.
I thank you all for giving your heart to these Games.
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.
Athletes of the European Games,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to Baku!
Welcome to Azerbaijan, to celebrate peace, friendship and solidarity!
X X X
President of the European Olympic Committees Patrick Hickey also addressed the ceremony.
Speech by Patrick Hickey:
-Good evening Baku!
Good evening Azerbaijan!
Your Excellency, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev;
Chair of Baku 2015, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva;
President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach;
President of the Association of National Olympic Committees, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah;
Excellencies; leaders from around the world;
Members of the International Olympic Committee;
Members of the European Olympic family;
Most distinguished guests;
Dear friends from Baku and all of Azerbaijan.
And the 12,500 volunteers who will light up the next 17 days.
This is the proudest moment in the history of the European Olympic Committees.
Here, tonight, in Baku’s magnificent new National Stadium we are witnessing – we are creating – a landmark moment in European sport.
The opening of the inaugural European Games.
Tonight, we add the missing fifth ring to the Continental Games of the world.
And through Europe’s first Games, we bind the five continents of the Olympic Movement even closer together.
Thank you President Aliyev and First Lady Aliyeva, and thank you Azerbaijan…
For the welcome you have given to the European Olympic family.
First Lady Aliyeva: as Chair of Baku 2015, your role in these European Games cannot be overstated.
For your tireless dedication to this endeavour, for your contribution to the bright future of sport in Europe: once again, I thank you.
As a nation you are on an exciting journey.
It has been an honour to share in it with you.
Sport has a unique power to effect positive change. To instil a set of values that make change inevitable: what President Bach calls a universal law of sport.
Global ethics, fair play, respect and friendship.
Baku 2015 is the culmination of a long road, and a bold dream.
A burning ambition for the EOC.
And the greatest stage for you, the 6,000 athletes of the 50 Olympic nations of Europe who are here today on the verge of something remarkable.
Dear athletes, these are your Games.
You are about to compete in some of the most magnificent venues you have ever set foot in.
You are about to live, eat and train shoulder-to-shoulder with your closest rivals.
Many of you will even secure your qualification for Rio 2016 over the next two weeks.
But make no mistake: you will only have one chance to become the first ever European Games Champion.
I urge you to take it.
I urge you to strive for excellence and compete in the true Olympic spirit of friendship and respect.
And I urge you to write your names forever into Europe’s glorious sporting history.
Thank you and good luck.
I now have the honour of inviting the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mister Ilham Aliyev, to declare open the inaugural European Games, Baku 2015.
X X X
President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev declared the first European Games open.
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.
When she reached the centre, she put down the dish where the ‘first flame’ was buried. Water began to rise from the ground, creating a body of water – the Caspian Sea – in front of her. She slowly walked across the water.
As she reached the outer edge of the water, she turned to look at the landscape that transformed behind her.
As the woman watched, 100 men rise up through the earth, covered in mud and dust. They performed a ritual-like Azerbaijani dance, stamping their feet on the ground to the rhythm of 50 drummers.
As the dance built to a climax, sections of the ground began to break and lifted up, like an earthquake.
Huge boulders rose up from the ground to create an enormous mountain. Once fully formed, simple human figures, animals and boats were inscribed in fire on its sides. These were the petroglyphs (ancient rock engravings) of Gobustan.
A man broke through the cracked earth on top of the mountain. He stood there alone. Through the silence, we heard the sound of the traditional Azerbaijani song ‘Sari Gelin’ played on the balaban.
A burning rock sat at the man’s feet. He picked it up. He looked towards the woman, who was staying facing him by the ‘Caspian Sea’. They remind us of Leyli and Majnun – the unrequited couple we met earlier, dancing on the measuring scales (the sun and moon). A black mirror disc slowly emerged behind her, rising over the horizon of the water, like a moon, to frame her. The mountain slowly descended into the earth and disappeared. The man was standing at the centre of the stage holding the burning rock. He took a few steps towards the woman and placed the rock on the ground. It triggered streams of fire that spread through the cracked earth. He picked up the rock and put it down in two more places on his way towards the woman. The fire spread through the cracks behind him to inscribe an enormous human figure in the ground.
It’s like flowing lava forming a giant petroglyph, or the eternal fire that burns from the ground at Yanar Dag. As the petroglyph became more complex, it appeared to look like the human vein system, lit from the navel, the heart and the brain. The man looked at the fiery landscape he’s created. The woman crossed the water to join him. He picked up the burning rock and the streams of fire quickly disappeared, flowing from the hands and feet up to the top of the head. As the story neared its climax, we’re reminded of humankind’s burning need to connect and understand, expressed through our scientific endeavours, our art and our love for one another.
The man and woman held the burning rock and run together towards the rising disc. They splashed into the shallows of water and threw the rock towards the black mirror disc. The burning rock smashed into the centre of the disc and shattered into pieces. Flames immediately ignited around the rim to create a ring of fire.
The lit disc is reminiscent of a total solar eclipse – a cosmic coming together of the earth, sun and moon. This symbol of unity and truce rose high in the stadium.
The Caspian Eclipse cauldron will burn throughout the Games – a landmark for the city.
As the firework display built in intensity, all of the performers gathered around the edge of the circular stage. They held hands and dance Yalli – the national dance of Azerbaijan. This was their bow.
During the Yalli, the names of all the Ceremony volunteer performers appeared on the LED strip that run around a stadium balcony, scrolling along its entire length.
Twenty thousand inflatable ‘pomegranate seeds’ cascaded over the audience. They were a token of love and good luck and a symbol of Azerbaijan.
This joyous Yalli dance brought the Opening Ceremony to a celebratory end.