Thingvellir National Park is one of the most important places in Icelandic history. It was here that the national assembly, the Alþingi, one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world, was founded in 930.
The Alþingi in Thingvellir National Park
The Alþingi was created by the 32 clans who settled in Iceland since 874. They decided that it would be better to talk about their problems together than fight among themselves. Until then, each settlement had its own regional assembly. All of them decided on one annual meeting — two weeks in the summer — an opportunity to learn about what was happening elsewhere, promote new laws, and settle disputes. There was no leader per se, but a designated lawyer who recited the laws to those present. He used the topography of the site as a natural megaphone.
The sessions also served as a social event. After months of being isolated in their respective villages, it was the opportunity to trade, dance, drink, eat, and gossip. Most young people would find their life partners at this gathering as well. Not to mention, of course, many fights took place. Don’t forget that they were descendants of the Vikings!
This new parliament was a success. It was held in Thingvellir until 1798, before being moved to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
The other purpose of the gathering was to hold trials.
Trials and sentences
Before 1262, the year of colonization by Norway, if somebody was found guilty, the punishment had to be enforced by those who filed the grievance. The most popular form of corporal punishment was lashing, branding, cutting off a limb or some fingers, or hitting.
After this time period, the penalties for the culprits became tougher and more complex. The new rules were set by the King of Norway. While fines were applied in minor cases, in more severe ones, the parliament could impose punishments of varying degrees. It can range from three years to life in exile to the death penalty. If a convict were to violate the verdict in exile cases, he was at high risk of being legally killed by the victim’s family. Such issues of revenge are common in Icelandic sagas.
Which sentence for which crime
For women, the death would be by drowning if they were guilty of “loose morals.” Meanwhile, men were either hanged for thievery, or beheaded for murders or male adultery. Death by burning was for those convicted of sorcery.
Each sentence has its place
Many place names in Thingvellir recall these harsh punishments. The women were drowned at Drekkingarhylur, literally “the drowning pool,” a small lake in the park. The men were either beheaded on Höggstokkseyri, ”the log,” situated on an Oxara River islet or hanged at Galgaklettur, “the gallows rock,” in the Stekkjargja fault.
Kagaholmi, “islet of the Scourge,” was presumed to be the place where offenders were whipped, while Brennugja, “throat of fire,” takes its name from the pyres lit for the execution of wizards and witches at the end of the 17th Century.
Some important events that took place there
This historic site was witness to two significant events for Iceland. In the year 1000, the jurist Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði declared Christianity as the state religion — avoiding what would have been a violent civil conflict by allowing private worship of pagan Norse gods — and on June 17, 1944, the independence of the Republic of Iceland was proclaimed.
Thingvellir became a national park
In 1928, the site became a national park due to the particular tectonic and volcanic environment. In fact, during our walk, we strolled through Iceland’s largest fault, Almannagjá, which is formed between the North American and the Eurasian plates.
We also learned about the largest lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn, and the Öxarárfoss waterfall, flowing from the Öxará river.
Since 2004, Thingvellir features on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its geological character and historical significance.
Our visit to Thingvellir National Park
The car park in which we stopped at overlooked the site (P3 on the map). This location allowed us to start our visit with an overview of the great Icelandic fault, Almannagjá. Its nickname: “The Walk of Death.” Such a gloomy thing to call a beautiful landscape! It was given the name because during the Alþingi rallies, it was the route the defendants took to go to their trial — and sometimes to their death!
It’s incredible to imagine that one side of the fault is the North American plate while the other one is the Eurasian plate!
We then took the red path on the map, following the signs that lead to the park’s various points of interest: the Öxarárfoss waterfall, the church, the houses of Thingvellir, and the Silfra Fault.
Öxará River is a lake-to-lake river, a tributary of Lake Þingvallavatn. It falls from the rift, forming the Öxarárfoss Waterfall.
On our way to the church, we were astonished by the beauty of the site. There are so many different kinds of landscapes.
The church in Thingvellir National Park
The church was built immediately after the adoption of Christianity by Iceland. According to the “Kristnisaga,” the History of Icelandic Christians, the King Olaf II of Norway—Saint Olaf—brought wood to construct Thingvellir’s church. Up to now, no one knows where the first church was built. It’s also very likely that there were two churches at that time.
However, what is certain, is that the current church site dates back to 1500. The church we admired in front of us is not the original but another one built in 1859. In 1907, the bell tower was added. It has three bells, two of them being remnants of the ancient churches. The historians could not date the oldest bell but found out that the second one was a gift from Bishop Jon Vidalin in 1698. The third one is “The Icelandic Bell,” installed here in 1944 when Iceland became a republic.
Behind the church is Iceland’s national cemetery. It was built in 1940 and houses the tombs of two great Icelandic poets, Einar Benediktsson (1864-1940) and Jonas Hallgrimsson (1807-1845).
The parish cemetery
A little further from the church, we found the parish cemetery. Nowadays, as a large part of the local farms have been abandoned, it is not used anymore. The last priest buried here was Heimir Steinsson in 2000. He was also the manager of the park.
Curious fact about Iceland churches
The “ell” (Icelandic “alin“) was a unit of measurement. An “ell” represented the measurement of a forearm, from elbow to fingertips. The issue was that the measure varied from person to person, making it not suitable for commercial use. For this reason, a law required that each church must have an official 20-ells long scale marked on its side.
Additionally, merchants used a wooden standard of two ells in length to measure wool and other textiles. We can see the wooden ruler in the photo above, under the explanatory panel. Another rule stated that the ruler must represent one-tenth of the official scale of 20 ells on the church wall.
The houses of Thingvellir National Park
In 1907, a house was built next to the Öxarárfoss waterfall for King Frederik VIII of Denmark. The place was called “the king’s house.” For the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Alþingi in 1930, it was moved south to Lake Thingvallavatn’s shores. Around the same time, they also constructed a residence for the park manager with three gables and a thatched roof where he lived until 1995.
After the celebration, the then prime minister decided to use the king’s house as a summer residence. Unfortunately, in July 1970, there was a fire in which the Prime Minister, his wife, and their young son perished.
To replace this summer house, two gables were added to the manager’s house.
Today, four of the five gables belong to the Prime Minister — the fifth gable serving as facilities for the priest and the park manager. Even if it’s still a summer residence, it is also used for official receptions hosted by the Prime Minister.
We continued our stroll to discover some beautiful little cracks with crystalline water.
Iceland is located between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate, which deviate on average by 2 cm per year. The Silfra fault is one of the points of separation between these two plates.
The fault was formed as a result of geological tensions beneath the Earth’s crust. An underwater spring then appeared, which filled the canyon already formed with pure crystal clear water. It is drinkable! In the picture above, we can admire the lava rock of its coast.
Silfra Fault is renowned for cold water diving. For enthusiasts, several agencies offer snorkeling or scuba diving.
Our visit was coming to an end, and it was in front of the Lake Thingvallavatn that we enjoyed our last moment in the park.
With its history and geological characteristic, Thingvellir National Park turned out to be the ideal spot to start our Iceland trip. Nature here seems to have stayed unchanged for years. Some infrastructures were built to ease visit and increase enjoyment of the park, but it had been done with great respect for the landscape and the flora. Iceland is a country that should be on the bucket list of every nature lover, and this park an excellent first discovery of its beauty. A must-visit without a doubt!