Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

World Heritage: Iceland

Thingvellir National Park, located in southwestern Iceland, is the original location of the Iceland’s open-air parliament, first established by settlers from Scandinavia and the British Isles in 930 A.D. The park also features impressive geological formations, including a rift valley and the largest natural lake in Iceland. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Iceland’s first formal assembly, the Alþing, was the country’s supreme legislative and judicial authority from its establishment in 930 until 1271. During assemblies, any member in attendance could present his case from atop the “Law Rock,” or Lögberg. From this rock, the Lawspeaker (an official elected for three years at a time) presided over the assembly and declared the laws of the land, confirmed the calendar, brought about legal action and made announcements that concerned the entire nation. Before a law could be written down, however, the Lawspeaker was expected to recite the law from memory from atop the Lögberg for three consecutive summers in a row. A Law Council was a closed group of select chieftains who served as both a parliament and a supreme court. Although the Icelandic Commonwealth ended in 1271 with the onset of Norwegian rule, Iceland’s parliament continued to meet at this site until 1798.

Thingvellir served not only as the political center, but also the social center of Icelandic culture. Each year when the assembly was in session, people journeyed from all over the country to sell goods and services, take part in games and feasts, and exchange news with people from different parts of the country. During these assemblies, the foundations of Icelandic literature and language were laid and a national identity started to emerge.

In addition to the historical importance of the location, travelers visit Thingvellir National Park to witness the stunning landscape of the countryside which includes the thundering Gulfoss waterfall and the geysers of Haukadalur. Thingvellir National Park is an especially important site for the Icelandic people because it preserves the beautiful landscape for which the country is famous as well as the site on which the current political, and eventually cultural, identity first developed.

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