Þingvellir

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Þingvellir National Park
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Type Cultural
Criteria iii, vi
Reference 1152
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 2004 (28th Session)

Þingvellir (Icelandic: About this sound [ˈθiŋkˌvɛtlɪr̥] , Thing Fields) is a place in Bláskógabyggð in southwestern Iceland, near the peninsula of Reykjanes and the Hengill volcanic area. Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. It is the site of a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is also home to Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.[1]

Parliament or Alþingi was established at Þingvellir in 930 and remained there until 1798.[2] Þingvellir National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the remains of the parliament site and was later expanded to protect natural phenomena in the surrounding area. Þingvellir National Park was the first national park in Iceland and was decreed "a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged."[3]

History[edit]

Founding of Parliament[edit]

According to the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), the settlement of Iceland began in AD 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island.[4][5] Over the next centuries, people of Norse and Celtic origin settled in Iceland. Early on, district assemblies were formed, but as the population grew there was a need for a general assembly. The descendants of Ingólfur who dominated the region of southwest Iceland had become the most powerful family in the country, and other chieftains felt a need for a general assembly to limit their power.

Grímur Geitskör was allotted the role of rallying support and finding a suitable location for the assembly. At about the same time, the owner of Bláskógar (the contemporary name for the Þingvellir region) was found guilty of murder and his land was declared public and obligated to be used for assembly proceedings, the building of temporary dwellings, the use of the forest for kindling and the grazing of horses. The Þingvellir region was chosen for this reason and the accessibility from the most populous regions of the north, south and west.[6] The farthest distance a goði (chieftain) had to travel was 17 days traveling from the easternmost part of the country where mountains and glacial rivers proved bothersome obstacles.[2]

The foundation of the Icelandic parliament is said to be the founding of the nation of Iceland, and the first parliamentary proceedings in the summer of 930 laid ground for a common cultural heritage and national identity. Þingvellir played a central role in the history of the country, and its history runs almost parallel with the history of the Icelandic Commonwealth.

Panorama of Þingvellir in Autumn.

From commonwealth to foreign rule[edit]

The Alþingi (assembly) at Þingvellir was Iceland's supreme legislative and judicial authority from its establishment in 930 until 1271. The Lögberg (Law Rock) was the focal point of the Alþingi and a natural platform for holding speeches. The Lawspeaker, elected for three years at a time, presided over the assembly and recited the law of the land. Before the law was written down, he was expected to recite it from memory on the Lögberg over the course of three summers along with the complete assembly procedures every summer. Inauguration and dissolution of the assembly took place at the Lögberg, where rulings made by the Law Council were announced, the calendar was confirmed, legal actions were brought and other announcements made which concerned the entire nation. Anyone attending the assembly was entitled to present his case on important issues from the Lögberg.

The Law Council served as both a parliament and supreme court. Laws were passed and approved there, and rulings made on points of Law. The Law Council appointed members of the Fifth Court (a kind of appellate court), appointed the Lawspeaker, and took part in the election of the bishop. Unlike the Alþingi, the Law Council was a closed body in which only certain people enjoyed full rights: chieftains who held the office of "goði", their "Þingmen" and later also bishops. However, everyone at the assembly was entitled to watch and listen to the Law Council at work.

From the earliest times until the 15th century, the Law Council met at Neðri-Vellir on the east bank of Öxará, but when the river changed its course around 1500, the council was moved to an islet in it. In 1594, the Law Council was relocated to the foot of the ancient Law Rock, where it remained until the Alþingi was finally transferred from it in 1798.

The Alþingi was Iceland's legislative and chief judicial authority for the duration of the Commonwealth, until 1271. Executive power was in the hands of the chieftains and parties to individual cases at each time. This proved to be quite an adequate arrangement for as long as the balance of power remained, but flaws emerged when it was disrupted. The final decades of the Commonwealth were characterized by clashes between chieftain families, which resulted in Iceland becoming part of the Norwegian crown. Executive power was strengthened under this new order, while legislative and judicial authority remained in the hands of the Alþingi but was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later Danish rulers until the King of Denmark became an absolute monarch of Iceland in 1662.

Social centre[edit]

Þingvellir from the information centre overlook


Þingvellir was the centre of Icelandic culture. Every year during the Commonwealth period, people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country, sometimes numbering in the thousands. They set up dwellings with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing and stayed in them for the two weeks of the assembly. Although the duties of the assembly were the real reason for going there, ordinary people gathered at Þingvellir for a wide variety of reasons. Merchants, sword-sharpeners, and tanners would sell their goods and services, entertainers performed, and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly guests. News was told from distant parts; games and feasts were held. Young people met to make their plans, no less than leading national figures and experts in law. Itinerant farmhands looked for work and vagrants begged. Þingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, laying the foundation for the language and literature that have been a prominent part of people's lives right up to the present day.[citation needed]

Geography[edit]

Map of Iceland indicating Þingvellir

Þingvellir became a national park in 1928 due to its historical importance, as well as the special tectonic and volcanic environment as a rift valley.

Map showing the extent of the park.

The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region, the biggest one, Almannagjá, being a veritable canyon. This also causes the often-measurable earthquakes in the area.[7]

Some of the rifts are full of surprisingly clear water. One, Nikulásargjá, is better known as Peningagjá (lit. "coin fissure"), as it is littered with coins at its bottom. After being bridged in 1907 for the arrival of King Frederick VIII of Denmark, visitors began to throw coins in the fissure, a tradition based on European legends.

Þingvellir is situated on the northern shore of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake of Iceland. The river Öxará traverses the national park and forms a waterfall at the Almannagjá, called Öxarárfoss. On the lake's northern shore Silfra fissure is a popular dive and snorkel tour location. Together with the waterfall Gullfoss and the geysers of Haukadalur, Þingvellir is part of the most famous sights of Iceland, the Golden Circle.

Þingvellir is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tourism[edit]

Scuba diver in the Silfra.

Þingvellir National Park is popular with tourists, and is one of the three key attractions within the Golden Circle. Visitors can obtain interpretation of the history and nature of Þingvellir and can find hiking trails and camping grounds. Scuba diving has also become popular at Silfra Lake as the continental drift between the tectonic plates made it wide enough for divers to enjoy unparalleled visibility[clarification needed].

Related places[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Geology and Tectonics
  2. ^ a b Björnsson, Björn Th. Þingvellir. Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1984.
  3. ^ Lagasafn. Lög um þjóðgarðinn á Þingvöllum, 2004 nr. 47 1. júní, 1.gr.
  4. ^ Tomasson, Richard F. (1980). Iceland, the first new society. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-0913-6. 
  5. ^ I. Marc Carlson. "History of Medieval Greenland". Personal.utulsa.edu. Retrieved 2010-02-10. 
  6. ^ Jónsson, Bergsteinn; Þorsteinsson, Björn. Íslands Saga til okkar daga. Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 1991
  7. ^ "Earthquakes: Iceland". Icelandic Meteorological Office. Retrieved 2008-10-05. 
  8. ^ Johnson, Sveinbjorn (1906). Libby, Orin Grant, ed. The Icelandic Settlement of Pembina County. Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota 1. Bismarck, ND: Tribune, State Printers and Binders. p. 109. OCLC 01773487. 
  9. ^ "Thingvalla History". Thingvalla Lutheran Church Memorial <www.thingvalla.org>. Retrieved 2010-07-02. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 64°15′29″N 21°07′30″W / 64.25806°N 21.12500°W / 64.25806; -21.12500