In the heart of Reykjavík, on the pretty green square of Austurvöllur, a rather staid, stately building hosts Iceland's parliament, the Althingi. 

Built of bare Icelandic stone, it looks to all the world like a town hall in a northern English mill town, functional, dull, and municipal. Opened in 1881, in all that time, it has witnessed every parliamentary session but five.

These extraordinary meetings hold special significance, however, both in terms of location and occasion. Thingvellir is anything but municipal. 

Some 40km northeast of Reykjavík, this was where Viking-era elders established Iceland's first Althingi in 930 CE. A thousand years later, not only did parliament convene to mark the occasion, but Thingvellir was made a National Park

And for good reason. Set in the rift valley at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, Thingvellir lies close to Iceland's largest natural lake, Thingvallavatn. 

It was here, on the north shore, that the national parliament was founded, making it one of the oldest in the world.

Discovered and explored by Vikings

Iceland had not long been settled. Discovered by Norse Viking Naddodd in the mid-800s when his ship drifted off course en route to the Faroes, Iceland was first explored by Swedish Viking Garðar Svavarsson in 870, who circumnavigated it to prove it was an island.

Quickly, more fellow Norse, along with their Irish and Scottish slaves, colonized Iceland. Within 50 years, most cultivatable land had been claimed. Within a century, this led to migration in significant numbers to Greenland in search of greener pastures.

Given the scrabble for plots, therefore, some kind of legal agreement was required, which became known as the Icelandic Commonwealth, whose jurisdiction lasted from the first Althingi in 930 to Iceland, falling under Norwegian sovereignty in 1262. This was a body of local chieftains, all with an equal say in decision-making.

While many admired Norway's laws, few were enamored with the absolute power of its first king Harald Fairhair, the reason for their flight to Iceland in the first place. Hence their new homeland would have a more egalitarian set-up, referred to as the Goðorð system, after the chieftains, goðar, who were responsible for it.

The thingmenn or assembly people who supported the goðar would convene at the local level to settle disputes, while the chieftains themselves met at the national assembly, or Althingi. Where this was, the picturesque, volcanic setting of Thingvellir, translates as Assembly Plains. 

It was chosen for its relatively accessible location, as the southern, western, and northern coasts of Iceland were the most populated, and only a few days' ride away. The few coming from the east had to count on at least a fortnight's trek. 

The former site of the Althingi parliament in Iceland at the Thingvellir National Park, part of the Atlantic Ocean ridge. Photo: trabantos / Shutterstock

How the Thingvellir area was chosen

It is thought that the first Althingi took around three years to plan. While Grímur Geitskör combed the island looking for the ideal site, his relative Úlfljótr was dispatched to Norway to study its laws in order to create a legal framework for the soon-to-be island nation back home. 

Geitskör was in luck. At some point in his search, the area that would be known as Thingvellir had become public property after its owner was found guilty of murder. Tellingly, the person he had killed was a slave, a crime that would probably have gone unpunished in other countries at the time.

Thingvellir had plentiful land for chieftains to allow their horses to graze. Wood from the surrounding forest could be used to build temporary lodgings and as kindling for the bonfires that warmed delegates as summer evenings turned to night. A large lake alongside was an added bonus.

We know all this colorful background information today thanks to the Norse chronicles written in painstaking detail, the so-called Landnámabók, or Book of Settlements. Although the originals have been lost in the mists of time, later medieval copies are still in existence. The level of accuracy within them is astonishing, with each area, settlement, and resident described back to Iceland's initial 435 settlers.

The importance of the Book of Icelanders

Alongside, among other rare manuscripts at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík, the Íslendingabók or Book of Icelanders, is a history written in the early 1100s. 

It outlines the creation of the first Althingi in pretty much the same way as the Landnámabók. It even relates how Iceland's chieftains settled on a calendar that best reflected the seasons. 

With the year already divided into 52 weeks, the movement of the Earth was taken into account by having leap weeks every seven years, on the same principle as our leap years today.

In all, 39 chieftains and their advisors convened at the annual Althingi, which ran over two weeks in June. 

The gathering stayed faithful to convention: laws were read out by the so-called Lawspeaker or Lögsögumaður, who would position himself by a specific prominent rock in the middle of Thingvellir in order to address the gathered throng. 

A natural platform for such a purpose, the Lögberg welcomed a new Lawspeaker every three summers. As nothing was written down immediately, only after the fact, the Lawspeaker was expected to remember both the agreed laws and the procedure that allowed them to be created.

Iceland's house of parliament, which stands on Austurvöllur square. Photo: gabigaasenbeek / Shutterstock

Althingi: Legal procedures, markets, feasts...

The Althingi was more than laws and procedure, however. A market developed around it, combined with festival activities. 

Traders set up stalls, blacksmiths, tailors and sword-sharpeners provided services, entertainment was laid on, as well as food and ale. 

Although the island's dignitaries still met, the Althingi lost its significance once the Commonwealth broke up in the mid-1200s. Harsh winters affected agriculture, and Iceland became subservient to Norway.

The Althingi continued to convene at Thingvellir until 1799. By then, famine had struck Iceland in the wake of the Laki volcano eruption in 1783, devastating livestock. 

As the country slowly recovered, a new nationalism emerged, buoyed by Icelandic intellectuals educated in Denmark and inspired by similar movements around Europe. 

In 1843, while Iceland was still shackled to Copenhagen, a consultative version of the Althingi was established, modeled on the original Norse institution of the Viking era.

Granted a constitution and Home Rule in 1874, Icelanders built their own Parliament in 1880-81, the somewhat austere building you see today at Austurvöllur. 

The historicist architect Ferdinand Meldahl designed the building in as sober a fashion as the reconstructed royal Frederiksborg Castle in his native Denmark that same decade.

Independence

Complete independence from Copenhagen did not come until 1944, the second occasion that the Althingi convened Thingvellir in modern times. 

Fourteen years after the millennial celebrations of 1930, the foundation of the new republic was proclaimed by Thingvallavatn lake, where the goðar chieftains would gather in the 900s. 

In 1994, the Icelandic Parliament again met there to mark half a century of independence.

Back in Reykjavík, outside Austurvöllur, stands a statue of the first Icelandic settler, Ingólfr Arnarson, who made his home in the country's future capital, naming it after the smoke, almost certainly steam, he would have seen rising from the nearby natural springs. 

The Norseman would then have seen three decades of fellow settlers arriving to farm the lands here.  

On the other side of Austurvöllur gardens, below ground, the Settlement Exhibition tells the story of Iceland in the Viking era, giving visitors a hands-on idea of how the early islanders lived when their first parliament was convened back in 930.

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