Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Thingvellir is the most important cultural heritage site in Iceland. The Althing (General Assembly) was established here in 930 and continued meeting for more than 850 years until 1798.
The Althing was an assembly for the whole country and there are good written accounts dating back to its earliest days. The assembly lasted for roughly two weeks a year and was held outside, mainly confined to two places, the Lögberg (Law Rock), and the Lögrétta (Law Council). Here laws were recited and announcements and summonses made. People made speeches, presented ideas and submitted proposals. In bad weather proceedings were held in the church.
The lögsögumaður (lawspeaker) was based at the Lögberg and was in charge of proceedings, memorising and reciting the laws. People travelled to the assembly from all over Iceland and erected temporary houses or shelters called booths, which had turf or stone walls and were roofed with a woollen cloth. The ruins of these can still be seen at Thingvellir today.
The precise location of the law rock and law council is unclear. 13th century documents place the Lögberg somewhere on the eastern edge of Almannagjá, with the Lögrétta possibly in the field in front of it, either north or east of the river - Öxará. Place names, such as Drowning Pool and Gallows Rock can also shed light on some of the grimmer aspects of the proceedings.
Thingvellir is both historically and archaeologically the largest and most significant assembly site in Northern Europe. In addition to the visible remains, conducting archaeological excavations could shed new light on the site and its evolution – information that is unlikely to be obtained anywhere else.
In 1930 Thingvellir was declared a National Park and a law was passed designating Thingvellir “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.” In 2004 the park’s cultural values were recognised when it was placed on the World Heritage List.
The Althing at Thingvellir formed part of a wider judicial network made up of smaller district assemblies. The first district assemblies were founded at Þórsnes (Snæfellsnes, west Iceland) and Kjalarnes (southwest Iceland) in 900 AD. There were probably others held at time, although none are mentioned in historical records. Around 965 Iceland was divided into quarters. Each quarter had three district assemblies, with the exception of the Northern quarter, which had four, bringing the total number to 13.
After the establishment of the Althing the spring district assemblies became more permanent institutions. They were divided into two sessions, the ‘prosecution assembly’ and the ‘debt assembly’ and gathered for up to a week in May for the settlement of debts and disputes. Midsummer or autumn assemblies usually took place when people were returning from the Althing at the end of July or August and lasted for one or two days. Here the acts of Althing were promulgated and discussed, but no judicial actions were taken.
Thingvellir in the Sagas
One day everyone went to the Law Rock. The chieftains were ranged as follows: Ásgrím Elliða-Grímsson, Gizur Hvíti, Guðmund Ríki and Snorri Goði were up by the Law Rock, while the men from the Austfirðir stood farther below. Mörð Valgarðsson stood beside his father in law Gizur Hvíti.
Mörð was an extremely good speaker. Gizur said that he should now give notice of the manslaughter actions, and told him to speak loudly enough for all to hear him.
Mörð named witness – ‘to witness that I give notice of an unlawful assault by Flosi Thórðarson, in as much as he assaulted Helgi Njálsson at the place where Flosi Thórðarson assaulted Helgi and inflicted on him an internal wound of brain wound or marrow wound which proved to be a fatal wound and which did cause Helgi’s death. I declare that he should be sentenced to full outlawry on these charges, not to be fed nor forwarded nor helped nor harboured. I declare that all his possessions should be forfeit, half to me and half to those men in the Quarter who have a lawful right to receive his confiscated property. I give notice of this manslaughter action to the Quarter Court in which this case should properly be heard. I give lawful notice of it. I give notice of it in the hearing of all at the Law Rock. I give notice now of an action, to be heard at this session, for full outlawry against Flosi Thórðarson. I give notice that the action was assigned to me by Thorgeir Thórisson.’
There was loud approval at the Law Rock for the eloquent and forceful way that Mörð had spoken.
- Njál’s Saga
Meetings at the Althing feature prominently in many of the Icelandic Sagas. The passage above is just one of many in Njál’s Saga which describes proceedings at the thing. Both Laxdæla and Eyrbyggja Sagas mention the conversion of Iceland to Christianity at the Althing and in Grettir’s Saga, Thorbiorn Angle brings the head of Grettir to the Althing to prove that he has killed him.
Thingvellir National Park is amongst the most visited tourist sites in Iceland, attracting thousands of visitors a week. It forms part of the famous 'Golden Circle', a 300 km circular route that contains many of Iceland’s most famous landmarks. As well as the thing site the park includes some spectacular scenery, a top 10 world class diving site and some excellent opportunities for trout fishing.
Iceland's most popular tourist area, the Árnessýsla county uplands boasts a wealth of natural wonders and historical sites. Here you will find a hotbed of geothermal activity, as well as some of the most important historical sites in the history of Iceland.
Home to Geysir, this is undoubtedly the most famous geyser in the world. At its most active, its eruptions spouted scalding geothermal water some 60-80 metres into the air. Today the area has numerous hot springs, the most active of which is Strokkur which erupts every 2-3 minutes.
Gullfoss, the Golden Falls
The spectacular cascade of Gullfoss is actually two separate waterfalls, the upper one with a drop of 11 metres and the lower 21 metres.
This ancient manor farm and bishopric dates back to the year 1056. For centuries the local school, Skálholtsskóli, was the leading educational institution in Iceland. Skálholt occupies a position of well-deserved dominance in the history of medieval Icelandic books and manuscripts, for it was there that the books and manuscripts currently found in library collections were written and preserved.
In the days of the old Commonwealth the valley of the river Þjórsá was grassy and flourishing with about 20 farmsteads, but in 1104 the valley was laid waste by an eruption from Mt. Hekla. The farms that were buried under a layer of volcanic ash have been a goldmine for archaeologists. At least 40 buildings have been unearthed so far, the best preserved of which was the farmhouse at Stöng. In 1974 a replica was built to mark the 1100th anniversary of the settlement of Iceland.
The second largest glacier in Iceland can be seen from Gullfoss and is easily accessible for exploration by super-jeeps and snowscooters.
Diving the Silfra
A stunning dive is in the heart of the thing site of Thingvellir. Silfra is one of the best spots for diving in Iceland and many people find the rift unique on an international scale. The Silfra water is as pristine as water can get and you can drink it at any time during the dives. The reasons for this clarity are twofold: the water is cold (2°C - 4°C all year) since it's the melting water from a glacier about 50 km away and has travelled through the lava fields for many years before coming out at the north end of the lake - Þingvallavatn - through underground wells. A number of local dive operators offering tours of Silfra and can be found online.
Thingvellir is only 45 km from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík. The city offers a surprising amount to see and discover, from a selection of museums and galleries to a frankly improbable amount of shops and cafés, vibrant nightlife and interesting architecture and outdoor activities.
Open all year. Admission free.
Thingvellir National Park