Thingvellir is a natural shrine of outstanding natural beauty. Many of the most momentous events of Icelandic history took place at Thingvellir, where Althingi was founded in 930 and continued to assemble every summer until 1798. It was at Thingvellir that the Icelandic nation agreed to adopt Christianity in 1000 and the modern republic was founded in 1944. In 1928 Thingvellir was made Iceland’s first national park. In 2004 Thingvellir was officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Althingi was to regulate common affairs of the country, pass common laws, and arbitrate the disputes between the local areas and decide judicially regarding killings and lawlessness.
Prior to the formation of this Althing each area of the country had its own local Þing headed by the local goði, the priest-chieftain.
Thing or Ting and þing in Icelandic is a legistlative assembly in Scandinavian countries.
For 868 years every summer, chieftains, landed farmers and ordinary men and women from all parts of Iceland left their homes and villages and headed towards Thingvellir for the annual fortnight long meeting which would start on the first Thursday in the eleventh week of each summer. The trip on horseback could take up to 17 days from the eastern part of the country. Upon arrival, people set camp and temporary booths to hold meetings and trade. The plains of Þingvellir turned into a bustling open-air mart with huge crowds milling about among tents, booths, rocks, sheep and horses.
At Logrétta (Law Council) the Godar, the all powerful local chieftains and bishops gathered to debate and pass new laws and amend old ones. Then the Law-Speaker (lögsögumaður), the president of Lögrétta would stand on a nearby tall cliff, the Law Rock (Lögberg) in Almannagjá and recite the laws from memory. The high lava flank of the fissure behind him gave good accoustics which gave resonace to his voice. His words were recited by other speakers standing on farther cliffs to reach the entire audience.
On june 17th 1944 the then Speaker of Althingi stood in the same place to declare Iceland a sovereign republic to a large assembly of people at Þingvellir.
Originally the land which was chosen as the site of Althingi was called Bláskógar or Blue Woods and belonged to a farmer found guilty of murdering his slave. As punishment his land was confiscated and put under public ownership. The chieftains then chose this spot for Alþingi and changed its name to Thingvellir. It was tailor made for the purpose of assembling large number of people, close to the population centers with water and grazing areas.
The annual summer event at Thingvellir was not only a venue for passing laws. There thieves were flogged, guilty men were beheaded or hanged, sinful women were executed by drowning, outlaws were banished, religious appontments were made, marriages were arranged, contracts were negotiated, old feuds were settled, matters of honour were decided by duels, and distant news were exchanged.
Thingvellir is not only historically significant. It is also geologically and botanically very interesting. There the visitor can look at the enormous chasm in the Earth and see the effect of the North-American and Eurasian tectonic plates moving apart at an average rate of 1 cm a year. This means that the east-west bredth of Iceland grows almost 1 cm a year. The Mid Atlantic ridge is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.
Thingvellir was declared a national park in 1930. A law was passed designating Thingvellir as “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.”
Preservation measures at Thingvellir were modelled on the national parks that had been established somewhat earlier in the United States to stem changes to the natural environment there resulting from encroachment by settlers. National parks conserved large uninhabited areas, which people could visit and enjoy - but not settle or develop.
Iceland identified a similar need to preserve certain natural and historical sites for future generations to enjoy them in their original state. Today,Thingvellir is one of the most frequently visited tourist sites in the country. Each year, thousands of visitors go there to become better acquainted with Iceland's greatest historical site and jewel of nature.
Almannagjá in Thingvellir national park is considered to be one of the best examples of plate tectonics.
Almannagjá – Everymans Chasm – formed about 9000 years ago of extensive layers of basalt lava from the migthy Skjaldbreiður shield volcano which flowed down the plateau sitting atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where Thingvellir stands today. Later Powerful crustal shifts caused the plateau to tend downward rifting the lava in the middle in a south-west to north-east direction forming a great depression about 40 km long and 10 km wide. The subsidence resulted in the formation of two great chasms at the sided of the depression, the 9 km long rift called Almannagjá at the west side with lava walls of 30 m high leading to Thingvallavatn in the south and Ármannsfell in the north. The lesser Hrafnagjá (Ravens chasm) at the east side. The area between the two rifts subsided as to the result of further earthquakes the last time in 1789 when the floor of Þingvellir sank further down about one meter.
Öxará – creates a deep pond Drekkingarhylur. It is said that in 1100 a bridge was built over the river at Thingvellir for passage of horses and people. The name Ax River was given when the viking Ketilbjörn the Old lost his axe in the river trying to break the ice to get water.
Drekkingarhylur – Drowning pool - Guilty women were put in sacks and drowned in Drekkingarhylur while men were beheaded or hanged, thives were flogged, and vagabond punished. This obnoxious practice remained in effect until 1838.
Lögberg – the rock where the Law speakers stood and recited the laws. The rock is no longer visible as it has sunk into the earth by occasional earthquakes.
Öxarárhólmi – the largest islet in Öxará. Used as a duelling place in the past.
Valhöll – The booth owned by Snorri Sturluson in Thingvellir. Today Hotel Valhöll stands on this site.
Thingvallakirkja – According to Ólafssaga Helga by Snorri Surluson a model church was built in 1016 at Þingvellir, few years after Iceland was converted to Christianity. The timber for the church is to have been given to Althingi by King Olaf of Norway so so that when Icelanders gathered at Þingvellir every year they could see how a church looked and be tought how to perform the service. The king also sent a big bell with the timber. This church was destroyed in a storm in 1118 and several times rebuilt. The present church was built in 1859. The three bells in the belfry include one from 1698 and one from 1944. The first bell given by King Olaf and the second bell given by the next Norwegian king, king Harald, were melted down to make a new bell in 1593. The churches restored old pulpits are from 1683. The pastor of the church is also the warden at Thingvellir national park.
Skáldareitur – poets graveyard – Two prominent nationalist poets, Jónas Hallgrímsson and Eiar Benediktsson are buried in Skáldareitur.
Thingvallabær – residents of the pastor-warden of THingvellir and the Summer residence od the Prime minister.
Lake Thingvallavatn is the largest freshwater lake in Iceland about 84 square km.
The lake was formed when the land level sank below the water table level.
Its waters are fed from the springs beneath the lava floor. Öxar á also empties into it. Two outlets from the south join Hvítá and Ölfusá in the southern marshlands.
The water in the lake is very clear. The lake bottom is visible until the depth reaches 15 meters. It is therefore very popular diving site and is considered one of the best diving sites in northern Europe.
Sandey and Nesjaey are volcanic islands in the lake.
Two most common fish species in the lake are brown trout and a special variety of char.
The largest clearwater river in Iceland, Sog, flows out of the lake, 19 km long. It has been harnessed for electricity.
The weather changes quick on the lake. Clear mirrorlike lake can transform into a mean boiling oceanlike waves in less than 15 minutes. Neverthe less accidents do not happen often on the lake. Since 1920 one man has died after falling through ice and 8 men have died on boats.