Thingvellir (Þingvellir) – National Park

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Girl drinking water from the river Öxará at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park – South – Iceland

Þingvellir anglicised as Thingvellir, is a national park in the municipality of Bláskógabyggð in southwestern Iceland, about 40 km northeast of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. The park lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian. To its south lies Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.

Þingvellir is associated with the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, which was established at the site in 930 AD. Sessions were held at the location until 1798.

Þingvellir National Park (Icelandic: þjóðgarðurinn á Þingvöllum) was founded in 1930, marking the one-thousandth anniversary of the Althing. The park was later expanded to protect the diverse and natural phenomena in the surrounding area, and was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2004.

Settlement of Iceland

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National park with the old Hotel Valhöll in front

The Viking period is said to have started around the year 800 AD and continued until the middle of the 11th century. During that time, Nordic people settled far and wide, from the banks of the Volga to the eastern shores of North America, and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean.

The settlement of Iceland was one part of this extensive migration of people. Land shortage and internal disputes in Norway were factors that led to many people picking up their belongings and sailing across the sea to Iceland.
In Ari fróði’s Íslendingabók, it says that Ingólfur Arnarson probably first reached land in Reykjavík in 870 AD. Many followed in Ingólfur’s wake and saw Iceland as a land of new opportunities. The population increased steadily, and so did the need for laws and a specific place to meet, settle disputes and agree on certain rules that everyone had to respect.

Þingvellir ( Thingvellir ) National park in autumn colors

Some time after establishing the settlement, two district assemblies were established in Iceland, one in Þórsnes, near Stykkishólmur, the other in Kjalarnes. Later, other district assemblies were set up all over the country. Soon after the year 900, people started thinking about the possibility of setting up a general assembly – an Alþing in Iceland.
Shortly before 930, chieftains agreed to send a man named Úlfljótur to Norway. His mission was to learn the laws and customs that could become a model for the new society. He returned to Iceland where the first law enacted at the Alþing carries his name – Úlfljót’s Law. Úlfljót’s foster brother, Grímur geitskór, travelled around Iceland to develop support for the establishment of an Alþing and find a suitable meeting place.

Þingvellir ( Thingvellir ) National park in autumn colors

Both of them concluded that the assembly should be held at Bláskógar; so in 930, people gathered together at the place now called Þingvellir to take part in the first Icelandic Alþing, marking the beginning of the nation of Iceland. The work Íslendingabók tells of Þórir Kroppinskeggur, who owned land in Bláskógar. He murdered his servant, and as punishment all his land passed into common ownership for the use of the Alþing.

In Ingólfur Arnarson’s time, an assembly had been set up at Kjalarnes. His relatives were powerful and it’s said that their influence could have played a role in deciding the location of the Alþing. In the Commonwealth period, Þingvellir was well located in terms of the main tracks and main population centres, so it was easy for most to attend the assembly.

The conditions at Þingvellir were thought suitable for an assembly: good pasture, firewood, and water. The site was also considered suitable for the actual meeting site, as slopes and flat plains were set up against a rocky cliff.

Toponymy

The name Þingvellir is derived from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr, from þing (“thing, assembly”) and vǫllr (“field”), meaning assembly fields. Compare the English thing and weald (“Thingweald”) from Anglo-Saxon þing and weald. The site takes its name from Alþing (Althing), the national parliament of Iceland, which was founded at Þingvellir in 930 and held its sessions there until 1798. A thing was a form of governing assembly found in Germanic societies, and a tradition that endures to this day in one form or another across Northern Europe.

Although the name Þingvellir is plural, the older form Þingvǫllr is singular, and the modern singular form Þingvöllur can still be heard.

The name is anglicised as Thingvellir, and might appear as Tingvellir, Thingvalla or Tingvalla in other languages. The spelling Pingvellir is incorrect: as the letter “p” should never be used to represent the letter “þ” (thorn), which is pronounced as “th” is in English.

Dingwall and Tingwall in Scotland, Thingwall in England, Tynwald on the Isle of Man, and Tingvoll in Norway bear names of the same root and meaning.

Art

Because of its natural environment, Þingvellir has been a subject in the works of a number of Icelandic painters, including Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval and Ásgrímur Jónsson. The National Gallery of Iceland owns more than 150 paintings by Ásgrímur Jónsson that have Þingvellir as their subject. Þingvellir grew popular among artists because not only for its natural environment, but also because it was close to the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík and thus relatively inexpensive to travel there.

Trivia

The Thingvalla Line, a Danish shipping company active between 1879 and 1898, was named after Þingvellir. At its peak, the company had ten ships in its fleet, one of which was named the S/S Thingvalla, launched in 1873. The company operated four other ships which bore Icelandic names, namely the S/S Geiser, the S/S Island and two vessels named S/S Hekla

Tourism

Þingvellir National Park is popular with tourists, and is one of the three key attractions within the Golden Circle. There is a visitor centre, where visitors can obtain interpretation of the history and nature of Þingvellir. There is an information centre near the camping grounds. There are hiking trails. 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

Protection and Management

Thingvellir National Park was designated by a special law on the protection of the area, passed by the Alþing on 7th May, 1928.

According to the law text, Þingvellir by the river Öxará and the surrounding area shall, from the beginning of 1930, be “a protected national shrine of all Icelanders”.

The law says that the boundaries of the preserved area shall be marked by the Almannagjá fault to the west and the Hlíðargjá and Hrafnagjá faults to the east, while to the south the demarcation is a direct line from the highest point of mount Arnarfell to the Kárastaðir farm and to the north a line from mount Ármannsfellstraight east across the lava field to Hlíðargjá.

National park history

Old farmhouse and the church at Þingvellir

Old farmhouse and the church at Þingvellir

Þingvellir has always been popular, for obvious reasons. The history and striking landscape make the place an almost mandatory stopping point for tourists. In the middle of the 19th century, an idea was put forward in the US to conserve areas that are unique because of their beauty and grandeur. Settlers and others who travelled to uninhabited areas discovered places and natural phenomena at the sight of which they were spellbound. These were new ideas, a vision in which beauty and special characteristics started to be evaluated as wealth that mustn’t be sacrificed, but instead, must be cared for and preserved for future generations. These ideas came to Iceland in the early 20th century.eyrar og hotel.jpg

Old farmhouse and the church at Þingvellir

In 1907, State Antiquarian Matthías Þórðarson wrote a magazine article entitled “Protection of Beautiful Places and Remarkable Natural Phenomena”. There he discussed the necessity of preserving places that were remarkable and special because of their beauty; no less important, he maintained, than protecting ancient relics and old church objects. He suggested various places, but specified the Almannagjá fault and the area around Þingvellir by the river Öxará as an example of a site that deserved better care. He actually pointed out that Almannagjá had already been ravaged by the road work that by then was a fact. He cited examples of protection plans abroad and mentioned Yellowstone Park in the US as a place protected by law.

In 1913, teacher Guðmundur Davíðsson wrote an article that turned out to trigger the discussion of establishing a national park at Þingvellir. The article was published in a periodical called Eimreiðin, edited by University teacher Valtýr Guðmundsson. The article was explicit indeed and Guðmundur did not beat around the bush in depicting his countrymen’s bad treatment and negligence of this most historic place in the country, Þingvellir. At beginning of the article he wrote:  “Few Icelanders visit Þingvellir for the first time, without admiring the beauty of the landscape and being reminded of some of the major events that are interwoven into the history of this important place. These two factors, the historical events and the natural beauty, must stir the feelings of anyone standing in this sacred and legendary place. It brings together some of the most striking and beautiful aspects of Icelandic nature, while also being the site of many of the most important events of Icelandic history

In the article, Guðmundur cited examples of national parks in the US and explained the necessity of protecting Þingvellir that, by then, had become a popular weekend destination

Founding of Iceland’s parliament

Almannagjá is 7.7 km long. Its greatest width is 64 m, and its maximum throw is 30-40 m. It marks the eastern boundary of the North American plate.

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. 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.

Almannagjá

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. His land was declared public, and then obligated to be used for assembly proceedings, and the building of temporary dwellings, and the forest to be used for kindling and the grazing of horses. The Þingvellir area was chosen for this reason and for its accessibility to the most populous regions of the north, south and west. The longest journey a goði (chieftain) had to travel was 17 days, from the easternmost part of the country where mountains and glacial rivers proved bothersome obstacles.

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 the 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.

Tectonic movements

In the summer of 2000, two severe earthquakes occurred in South Iceland. Though their source lay 40-50 kilometres southeast of Þingvellir, stones fell from the ravine walls and water splashed up from the rifts. The water in the Flosagjá rift, normally crystal clear, became so murky that you couldn’t see the coins lying on the bottom. The earthquakes were a result of movement of the Eurasian and North-American plate boundaries that run through Iceland. In the south, the plates inch past each other, but at Þingvellir, they break apart and the land between subsides. Away from the plate boundaries the activity is fairly constant, about two centimetres a year, but, in the rift zones themselves, tensional stress accumulates during a long period and is then released in a burst of activity when fracture boundaries are reached. The most recent burst of activity swept over Þingvellir in spring 1789.

Iceland owes its existence to a mantle plume that produces twice as much volcanic matter as the Mid-Atlantic ridge. The mantle plume is located east of the ridge channel, but the eruptive belt tends to follow the plume, and it’s there that volcanic activity is greatest.

The earthquake zone is formed where the eruptive belt is shunted. In the eruptive belt, a new earth crust is formed that accumulates at the fault edges and gradually drifts away. The oldest rocks in the country are thus found a long way from eruptive belt, in the east and west of the country. Þingvellir is in a seven-kilometre wide graben that lies between the Almannagjá and Heiðargjá faults. It’s covered with 10,000 year-old lava that originated in a crater south of mount Hrafnabjörg.

During the time since the lava flowed, the land subsidence has been about 40 metres and the spreading or rifting about 70 metres. The rift valley is part of an active volcanic and fissure region that extends north from just outside the Reykjanes area to the Langjökull glacier. The outer boundaries of this are the Súlnaberg rock face in mount Botnssúlur and, in the east, mounts  Lyngdalsheiði and Laugarvatnsfjall.

The landscape at Þingvellir is now quiet different to that at the time when Grímur geitskór chose the site for the general assembly. In the Sturlunga Saga it is said that the river Öxará had been diverted into Almannagjá and onto Þingvellir.

Social centre

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 main 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.

The waterfall Öxaráfoss (The waterfall in the Ax River) in the ravine Almannagjá at Þingvellir is one of the best-known waterfalls in Iceland, at least among Icelanders. Like everything related to Þingvellir and Almnnagjá the waterfall has a sentimental reference and historical value. It is an important place in our most precious and sacred place Þingvellir. It is positioned inside Almannagjá in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The waterfall is rather small, only about 20 meters high, but is an important part of the overall natural wonders in the Þingvellir National Park. Depending on the season, the waterfall may differ in volume as the source, the river Öxará or Ax river, is quite different from one season to the next. As strange as this may sound geologists and historians have discovered that the river Öxará was moved hundreds of years ago, to channel the water into the ravine Almannagjá in the ninth century. The purpose was to provide water for the members and visitors of the Icelandic parliament Althingi in the 9th century.

From commonwealth to foreign rule

The Alþingi (assembly) at Þingvellir was Iceland’s supreme legislative and judicial authority from its establishment in 930 until 1271. The Lögberg or 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 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) and 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 the river. 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. This proved to be quite an adequate arrangement for as long as the balance of power remained, but flaws emerged when it was disrupted.

In the final decades of the Commonwealth, there were clashes between chieftain families, which resulted in Iceland coming under the Norwegian crown. Executive power was strengthened under this new order, while legislative and judicial authority at first remained in the hands of the Alþingi, but was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later the Danish rulers, until in 1662, the King of Denmark became the absolute monarch of Iceland.

Geologic history

During the last glacial period, a layer of ice, more than a 1000 metres thick, covered the land. Despite the cold, there was widespread volcanic activity under the glacier. This activity formed tuffs. Some of these volcanic eruptions managed to melt through the glacial shield and ended in lava flows. Others melted only a cavity under the ice and formed palagonite mountains or long palagonite ridges.

Brennugjá fissure at Þingvellir – Iceland

When the temperature increased 18,000 years ago, the glacier began to melt and retreated gradually. The first indication of Lake Þingvallavatn appeared 12,000 years ago.

The glacial tongue lay in the Þingvellir depression, and a glacial lagoon was formed to the south of it, north of the mountains known collectively as Grafningsfjöll. Þingvallavatn was later formed when the glacier retreated to the north, and water from it accumulated in the depression. From beneath the glacier, various types of palagonite mountains that were formed by volcanic activity under the ice depression came to light. About 10,000 years ago, when the glacier had reached its current position, a shield volcanic eruption started. This resulted both in mount Skjaldbreiður, one of the most beautiful shield volcanoes in Iceland, and a shield volcano south of mount Hrafnabjörg, from which the Þingvellir lava flowed. The eruption that formed the shield volcano probably lasted for decades, maybe even a century.

The lava collected murky glacial run-off water south of the Þingvellir depression. All the water from the north drained through the lava and reappeared below as clear spring water. The lava from the shield volcano south of Hrafnabjörg extended a long way into the lake and blocked off the outlet at Sogshorn. This meant that the water level rose, but at the same time it decreased considerably as lava occupied most of it. The lava flattened out over the Þingvellir depression, but land subsidence and rifting continued so the faults were renewed. You can now see a cross-section of the lava in the rift walls.

About 3000 years ago an 8 kilometre long eruptive fissure opened north-east of Hrafnabjörg and formed Þjófahraun. The lava spread out east of the Tindaskagi ridge but some ran north-west of Hrafnabjörg. The last eruption in the Þingvellir depression was 2000 years ago. That eruptive fissure is north-east of mount Hengill. The lava, Nesjahraun, ran into Grafningur and the ash crater Sandey arose from the bottom of Lake Þingvallavatn. Volcanic activity at Þingvellir has been dormant for 2000 years, but the question is not whether, but when it will start up again.

Lake Thingvallavatn

An old Icelandic proverb says “Fertile is water that runs under lava.” The proverb is particularly appropriate for the water that flows into Lake Þingvallavatn. The close relationship between the ecosystem of Lake Þingvallavatn and geological history gives Þingvallavatn a special place amongst the world’s lakes.

Þingvallavatn is a rift valley lake in southwestern Iceland. With a surface of 84 km² it is the largest natural lake in Iceland. Its greatest depth is 114 m. At the northern shore of the lake, at Þingvellir (after which the lake is named), the Alþingi, the national parliament, was founded in the year 930, and held its sessions there until 1799 and still as of today the name Alþingi Íslendinga is carried by the parliament of Iceland.

The majority of the catchment area is covered by lava and water easily drains through. The young age of the lava means that there is a high uptake of minerals in the groundwater, and this is one of the reasons for the great diversity of life in Þingvallavatn. Land subsidence, rifting and lava have created a diverse habitat, for instance hideouts for fish in fissures and holes along the shoreline.

The lake is particularly fertile and rich in vegetation, despite the very cold temperatures. A third of the bottom area is covered by vegetation, and there is a large amount of algae. Low-growing vegetation extends out to a depth of 10 metres while higher vegetation forms a large growing-belt to 10-30 metres deep.

A total of 150 types of plants have been found and 50 kinds of invertebrates, from the shore to the center.

Sunset at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park in Iceland.