Þingvellir National Park
The history of Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland. It is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930 and where it continued to meet until 1798. The history began in the Age of Settlements (c. 870-930) when large numbers of settlers arrived in Iceland, mainly from Norway, Ireland and the Scottish islands, and claimed land in most of the country. Initially the original settlers controlled their respective areas of land, but as the Age of Settlements wore on, people began to establish a formal system of government. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains (goðar) with some participation by ordinary people.
The Alþing was Iceland's legislative and chief judicial authority for the duration of the Commonwealth, until 1271. Executive power was in teh hands of the chieftains and parties to individual cases at each time. This proved to be quite an adequate arrangement for as long as the balance of power remained in the hands of the Alþing but was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later Danish rulers until the King of Denmark became absolute monarch of Iceland in 1662.
Þingvellir was conveniently situated on ancient travel routes and was hardly a day's journey on horseback from the main districts of south and west Iceland. Fairly easy routes could be taken from the most populated districts of north Iceland. People from the northeast and east Iceland could cross the highlands, while Þingvellir took 17 days to reach from the farthest flung parts of east Iceland.
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 booths 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 real reason for going there, ordinary people gathered at Þingvellir for a wide variety of reasons. Merchants, sword sharpeners and tanners could all sell their goods and services, clowns performed and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly guests. News were told from distant parts; games and feasts were held. 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.
Lögberg, the Law Rock, was the focal point of the Alþing and a natural platform for holding speeches. The Lawspeaker, a kind of chairman of the assembly, recited the law of the land. Before the law was written down he was expected to memorise the laws and recite them from the Law Rock over the course of three summers. Inauguration and dissolution of the assembly took place at Lögberg, where rulings 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 Law Rock.
In effect the Law Council served both as a parliament and as a supreme court. Laws were passed and approved there, and rulings made on points of law. Unlike the Law Rock, the Law Council was a closed body in which only certain people enjoyed full rights: chieftains who held the office of "goðar", their advisers and later also bishops. However, everyone at the assembly was entitled to watch and listen to the Law Council work.
When Iceland swore allegiance to the King of Denmark as absolute monarch in 1662, the last vestiges of independence disappeared. From then on, the Law Council mainly performed a judicial function. Harsher punishments were adopted and Þingvellir became an execution site. Many names in the landscape give testament to the cruelty of those times.
Although the Alþing had largely lost its function Icelanders continued to visit the assembly to keep informed and socialise, although they were no longer obliged to attend. Thus Þingvellir to some extent preserved its role as the focal point of Icelandic social life right until the end of the 18th century. During the struggle for independence the site became an important symbol of national unity. It became a symbol of a unified, independent nation. It was the scene of Iceland's most glorious and darkest moments and still serves as a forum for commemorating major events.
Þingvellir was declared a national park in 1930. A law was passed designating Þingvellir as "a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of the parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged."
North American and Europe have been drifting apart – metaphorically – for many years. It's been happening here – literally – for ages. Iceland sits at the juncture of the North American and European continental plates, which are moving apart at a speed of a couple centimeters per year. Þingvellir straddles that fissure, and the landscape is cracked like the surface of a huge piece of brittle rubber that's being pulled in opposing directions.
Flora and fauna
The national park is an easy one hour trip from the capital Reykjavík. If driving from Reykjavík it is necessary to drive to route 1 via Mosfellsbaer. From there it is possible to access route 36 which runs through Þingvellir. The park is open 24 hours.
Entrance into the park is free of charge. Fishing permits are sold in the Service Centre and cost 1,000 kr for the day.
A small café is in the Service Centre which sells hot dogs, soft drinks, sandwiches, cookies, ice cream and candy. The hotel has a restaurant and a café and is conveniently located on the outskirts of the main attraction, the old parliament site. Note that the cafe/book-shop is located a few kilometers past the visitor information center (if coming from the direction of Reykjavik).