Thingvellir National Park – Geology and History
The Font of Icelandic Democracy
In Iceland, one of the most remarkable attractions to be visited is the Thingvellir National Park. The spelling in Icelandic is Þingvellir. It is the most visited spot, both by tourists and Icelanders. The park, which has the distinction of being named a world heritage location by UNESCO in 1972, has a rich history. A quiet flowing river, Öxará runs through the park, and you can see the waterfall Öxarárfoss plunging from one of the cliffs.
The term Thingvellir literally means ‘Parliamentary Grounds’ with the Alþing General Assembly being established here around the year 930 AD. Thingvellir is a protected location as per Icelandic law, passed in 1928 and will always be the sole property of the Icelandic nation.
The Mid-Atlantic ridge runs right through Iceland, making this location of great geological importance. There are very few places in the world where one can actually see such a clear split between the tectonic places, and one of them is Thingvellir. The Eurasian tectonic plate in of course on the east side, and the North-American plate to the west. Away from the plate boundaries continental drift is fairly constant, diverging about two centimetres per year. The mantle plume that caused Iceland’s existance is located east of the ridge channel. Volcanic activity is greatest at the belt that follows the plume.
Adoption of Christianity
Thingvellir has been the scene of many dramatic socio-political events and is revered as a place of supreme importance by Icelanders. This world heritage has been the place where Christianity was officially adopted in Iceland at a solemn assembly. Prior to 1000 AD Icelanders followed various Pagan religious practices. With more and more Christian preachers coming in from neighboring countries Christianity was finally accepted as the official religion of Icelanders.
Permission to follow Pagan practices in private was given and stands till this day. With the advent of Christianity all bottlenecks in trade and cultural exchanges were removed.
The Church at Þingvellir
The first Christian church of Iceland was built at Thingvellir, with building materials gifted by the Norwegian monarch. Also donated was a massive bell.
The Church was huge as the national parliament used to meet there for parleys. The bell would have been used to announce sessions of the Lögrétta, the Parliament. Christian priests also used Thingvellir for sermons and to discuss various aspects of religion and policy. The Alþing was inaugurated with a church sermon and continues as a tradition till this day. Interestingly, Synods were also held at the Church till the year 1799. The church consecrated in 1859 has undergone renovation and the spire was rebuilt and modified in 1907. The pulpit at the Church is dated at 1683. In the year 2000, a large gathering of Icelanders and foreign tourists at the Thingvellir, celebrated a two-day fest to mark the ‘Millennium of Christianity’ on the soil of Iceland.
The Silfra and Davíðsgjá Fissures
The lake of Thingvallavatn is a very special lake. Diving or snorkeling in the Silfra and Davíðsgjá fissures has become one of Iceland’s “musts” due to the remarkable visibility from inside the clear, cold ground water, and the magnificent surroundings at the National Park.
The Silfra rift contains clear, very cold and drinkable water which attracts scuba divers to explore, between two continental plates. The visibility in the fissure is estimated to be maximum 300 meters. The rift has a shallow depth nearest to the bank, but deepens and widens further out. It has been placed in the top 3 diving destinations’ lists in several publications. The water in Silfra comes up through porous lava, after traveling underground through lava fields, from Glacier Langjökull.