Friday, July 12, 2013

#806 Thingvellir, Iceland

Iceland's most important historical site is 23km east of Reykjavik, but it feels like it is in the middle of the wilderness. The location of the first parliament in the world is a grassy knoll in the middle of a national park renowned for nature walks and green-grassed lake banks. Part of the Golden Circle of tourist attractions with Geysir and Gullfoss, it has been visited by all travelers to Iceland for hundreds of years.
In 930 AD the Vikings established the first democratic parliament of rule (the Althing) here because they were pleased to be separate from their kings at home and thus developed 'things' (assemblies). These eventually worked themselves into a national assembly. One brother learned the laws and passed them on verbally from generation to generation, and another brother found the site Blaskogur (Parliament Fields). As with many of the sites from the sagas, there is not much left aside from the law rock (Logberg), and the fact that despite the marvelous achievement of democratic self-rule, Icelanders later relinquished power back to the royals of Norway and Denmark (in 1271), so while it may have been the first, it was not a continuous course. It functioned as a courthouse until 1798 when it was dissolved completely, only to be reinstated in 1843 but relocated to Reykjavik. One of the most important decisions made here, however, was the conscious choice to make Christianity the country's religion (as opposed to Pagan beliefs -- if only modern religion could be decided so democratically!).
I think one of the more poetic things about the site is its geological location. Sitting right on the top of the great Atlantic Rift of the two continents' (North American and Eurasian) plates drifting visibly apart (18mm per year). Mossy lava flows, wrinkled rocks, deep fissures (such as Flosagja and Nikulasargja named for a freed slave and a dead drunk sheriff), the Almannagja cliffs, and spectacularly clear icy lakes and pools make it even more beautiful (although those lovely lakes were used to drown women found guilty of infanticide or adultery!). The site was chosen for its lakes full of fish (such as the enormous Thingvallavatn, Iceland's biggest lake at 84 sq km), the Oxara River (which was actually diverted to maximize its flow and convenience), the proximity of firewood as well as the dramatic setting to give aura to the orators. It was a great summer gathering with traders, entertainment, marriage contracts occuring, and other communal gatherings. Evidence of various family/regional booths can still be found at the foot of the cliffs, and the farmhouse built in 1930 (for the 1000th anniversary) is the park headquarters and president's summer house. 
Photo on a tourist notice board at the site with the rifts visible in the landscape.
Sources: Lonely Planet Iceland 7th Edition 

No comments:

Post a Comment