Þingvellir National Park is a historic and geological wonder located in the fields north of Þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland, and near the Rekyjanes peninsula.
It is a place of outstanding natural beauty, with its stunning lake, lava landscape and the rugged chasm walls on the Almannagjá (meaning everyman’s chasm) rift, where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates are pulling apart by a few centimetres (almost an inch) each year. It was on the cracks of this chasm that the Alþingi was held. Occasional earthquakes have reshaped this site; one in 1978 caused the plain to drop by about one metre (three feet). The junction of the plates is more clearly visible here than anywhere else in the world.
On the horizon to the east, south and west lie the low, snowcapped mountains of Botnssúlur, Hrafnabjörg and Ármannsfell. To the north is Skjaldbreiður (meaning broad shield) volcano. It was the lava from this volcano that formed Þingvellir. In the summer months the lava plain is covered with wild flowers and turns a splendid shade of red in the autumn.
Across the river is Þingvellir Church, consecrated in 1859. The first church at Þingvellir was built on the initiative of the King of Norway, St. Olaf, who sent church timbers and a bell to Iceland shortly after the country’s adoption of Christianity. Behind the church is the National Cemetery, which dates from 1939. The poets Jónas Hallgrimsson (1807- 1845) and Einar Benediktsson (1864 – 1940) are buried here.
Nearby is the Þingvellir manor-house, built in 1930 for the celebrations of the millennium of the Alþingi. In 1974 the building was extended by two gables, when the 1100th anniversary of the settlement of Iceland was celebrated.
We follow the path through the expanding chasm and cross a bridge over the Öxará river at Drekkingararhylur, the famed ‘drowing pool’ that came into use in the 16th century. Men condemned to death were beheaded but women who committed adultery, infanticide or perjury were drowned in this pool, which was then deeper and more turbulent than it is today.
Continuing along the path we soon arrive at the edge of the ancient parliamentary site. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the nation’s most sacred historic shrine, as one of the world’s oldest legislative assemblies, the Alþingi, originally convened here in A.D. 930.
As the age of the Icelandic settlement (870-930) progressed, the settlers began to consider questions of government and the form of the new society. The Book of Icelanders, written in the 12th century by Ari Þorgilsson the Wise, tells of a man named Ulfljótur who travelled to Norway to learn about legislative procedures; the first laws that were enacted at the Alþingi were Ulfljótur´s laws.
The system of government of the Old Commonwealth was based upon Germanic traditions, but the Alþingi is alone among the ancient Germanic assemblies in being extensively documented. While ancient law codes provide some insight into the division of powers between the goðar (chieftains) and their followers, the organization of society was largely based upon a relationship of trust between the chieftains and the free citizenry.
This site continued to be the venue of annual parliament meetings until 1798. It is also the place where it was decided that Iceland would become a Christian nation (in the year 1000) and where the country declared its independence from Denmark in 1944.
We pass Lögberg (law rock), where the goðar would enact new laws in the Logretta (Alþingi’s legislative assembly). The Lögberg was the focal point of every Viking Alþingi and is now marked by a stone and a flapping Icelandic flag.
The selection of Þingvellir as the assembly location of the Alþingi was probably based on a number of factors. The plains at Þingvellir were accessible from all the main cross-country routes, although those who had to travel the furthest might have to ride for up to two weeks from their homes. The site also provided plenty of firewood, grazing for live-stock and drinking water. According to Sturlunga saga, the Öxará river was diverted to flow down to the plains, in order to ensure an adequate water supply for those who attended the assembly.
During the assemblies of the Old Commonwealth, Þingvellir was full of life. Peddlers, sword-sharpeners, tanners and brewers offered wares for sale. Clowns performed tricks, banquets were held, casual laborers looked for work and beggars asked for alms. At the assemblies, stories would be told of faraway places and various contests were held. It was these gatherings that laid the foundation for the shared language and literature that has been at the very heart of Icelandic culture every since.
At the Alþingi people stayed in shelters or ‘booths’, whose overgrown foundations are still visible on the parliamentary site. From the viewing platform we can see Snorrabúð (Snorri’s Booth), one of the most clearly visible booths, which was named after Saga-age chieftain Snorri Þorgrímsson. Traces of about 50 booths have been found along the banks of the Öxará river and by the slope up to the Hotel Valhöll. The walls were probably built of rock and turf and roofed with fabric, draped over a wooden frame.
Due to its symbolic place in Icelandic consciousness, in the late 19th and 20th centuries Þingvellir was restored to importance as a location for national ceremonies.
- Information provided by Cruise and Maritime Voyages
- Insight Guides: Iceland
- Information signs at Þingvellir National Park