From Iceland — At The Law Court: The Magnitude Of Þingvellir’s History

At The Law Court: The Magnitude Of Þingvellir’s History

At The Law Court: The Magnitude Of Þingvellir’s History

Photo by
Art Bicnick

Published May 3, 2018

“You see that rift on the other side, right there at the base of the mountain?” Project Manager of Þingvellir National Park Torfi Stefán Jónsson is pointing at the chain of mountains hiding behind heavy clouds 7km away from us. “That marks the beginning of another tectonic plate, which is not the Eurasian one, but an intermediate plate that comes in between,” Torfi explains. “It makes our work more difficult to have to explain it that way!”

Torfi has taken it upon himself to accompany us on a walk around Þingvellir National Park for the day, to share his vast knowledge of history and, hopefully, to clear out some myths that we seem to hold about the Park. As we stand at the P1 view point, perched right at the fissure Almannagjá, which marks the end of the North American tectonic plate, we can see the entire valley stretch below us. The vast, glimmering waters of lake Þingvallavatn sparkle placidly in the distance, while groups of tourists walk orderly along the marked wooden path.

“You know, the theory of the tectonic plates wasn’t established properly until the 1960s, so until then Þingvellir was thought to be simply a magnificent place with great history in a beautiful landscape,” Torfi explains as we move along the metal platform. “And that’s actually the reason why the place finally went under UNESCO—for its historical relevance.”

Þingvellir was in fact the site of Iceland’s first parliamentary assembly in 930. “This was a tradition that settlers brought with them from Scandinavia and the British Islands,” Torfi explains. “During these assembly people came together to agree on laws and rules of society.”

Unfortunately, Icelanders don’t have much documentation to help them with their speculations, but according to Torfi it’s not hard to figure out how assemblies took place. A group of 147, comprised by the chieftains, called Goðar, and their assistants, met at the court of law to discuss law and justice. The rock of Lögberg, which stands meters away from us facing the rising sun in the East and marked by a stark white flag pole, was a good spot for public speakers to speak out from. Below Almannagjá stood the camping grounds, right at the shore of Þingvallavatn, which constituted a good source of food and water for all those who came to Þingvellir during the assemblies.

“Remember that the population is around 50 thousands at this point, between 930 and 1260,” Torfi says walking down the platform. “Those 150 people sitting the court are part of it, butaround 500 people always came to the assembly if they had things to do or people to see!”

As we take step on the main path to walk down Almannagjá, it’s not hard to imagine the hoard of people standing below this majestic black wall, waiting to hear the decisions that would potentially change their life forever. And what a magnificent spot they chose to do so.


If you want to check out Þingvellir National Park during your stay in Iceland, Reykjavík Sightseeing offers a variety of tours depending on your budget and schedule. Check out their website!

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Let’s hear it from you!

Name: Javier

From: Spain

How do you like Iceland? “We love it,” Javier says, turning to his girlfriend who is here with him. “It’s our first time in Iceland and we really love it.”

What have you done so far? “We’re actually at the end of the trip right now,” Javier explains. “We did the Ring Road, so we drove all along Road 1 and we got to see the entire island.”

What has been your favourite part of the trip? “I would say definitely the North,” Javier says with a smile. “You can see volcanoes up there, and a lot of nature… it just was really, really cool.”

What did you think of Þingvellir National Park? “It’s truly beautiful, even when there are a lot of people and tourist like today,” Javier explains. “When you get out of Reykjavik there are always less people anyway. The nature is empty and solitary, and that’s really nice.”

Name: Elinor

From: Denmark

What brought you to Iceland? “My girlfriend lives here, so I’m visiting her for four days!”

What have you seen so far? “It’s actually my first time seeing the countryside,” Elinor says. “So far I’ve seen the golden circle, the Gullfoss waterfalls and then yesterday we went to the Blue Lagoon. It’s just awesome.”

What is your favourite part of the trip so far? “I think the nature is so stunning,” Elinor explains. “But the people are even better. They’re so welcoming and nice. For instance, I went to a party with my girlfriend yesterday, and the people were just so welcoming and friendly the entire evening.”

What did you think of the National Park? “It’s so stunning,” Elinor says. “We actually got here pretty early, so we were here when the sun was coming up and…wow. The colours on the lake, on the mountains and on the snow were incredible. The whole atmosphere was just magical.”

So was it just as you expected? “No, it was definitely better,” Elinor explains with a smile. “I knew some things about it because my mother lived here in the Eighties and she had told me stories about living in the countryside and seeing the Northern Lights. So I’ve always had a picture of what it looked like, and of what it felt like staying here but this is something else. It’s just so much better.”

Meet a local!

Name: Torfi Stefán Jónsson

From: Reykjavík

Occupation: “I’m a teacher and a historian, and I cover the position of Project Manager for the National Park,” Torfi explains. “My main job is to guide groups around the Park. I mainly take care of school groups, for example from the University, but I also step in when there are public or semi public group coming to see the place.”

How long have you worked for the National Park? “I began as a summer employee in 2006 and my last summer as summer ranger was 2014,” Torfi explains. “In that time I had started teaching in elementary school, but then the Park needed extra workforce so they grabbed me from teaching and put me here as a full time employee to take care of the educational department.”

What’s your favourite thing about the job? “There is something about working here in different seasons, to see the beauty or even the beast arise at different times of year,” Torfi says looking around. “It’s just interesting to see how the place changes, how it evolves over the years.”

Being out in nature, however, isn’t the only aspect of his job that appeals to Torfi. Having been a teacher for years, he enjoys sharing his knowledge about the park with young, curious students who come by the park. 

“I like teaching, although I didn’t like giving grades, so here I’m still doing the same,” he explains, smiling. “But if in class you tend to repeat the same things, here there is always something new. You never know what’s happening, every day. You arrive, you have a plan and then the plan goes out the window. It can be both frustrating sometimes, but it’s also very fun!”

What are the main challenges rangers face when it comes to protecting the Park? “Something to think about when dealing with mass tourism is how to somehow keep the place intact while still not interfering with the view and the nature too much,” Torfi explains.“In 2013 we started putting up these fences, which constitute a nice solution, as they’re still in line with the environment. They don’t catch the eye too much.”

And in the future? “We’ll continue to put more fences, as whenever this line ends, people start going around it,” Torfi says with a sigh. “But we must also think about designing signs that warn tourists about the vulnerability of the area but that are less invasive than this white ones we’ve got now. And that’s kind of a headache question.”

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