Ãingvellir is generally considered to be one of the "weather paradises" of Iceland. This is due to the fact that when the weather is good it is usually best in this area. The weather, like everywhere else in Iceland, is swift to change though. The temperature drop from day to night is considerable and even though the day was sunny and warm the night might be quite cold. During winter it can snow quite a lot and those driving smaller vehicles are advised to familiarise themselves with the road conditions before heading out.
Flora and fauna
Birch woodland is characteristic of the Ãingvellir area, indicated by the original name of the area in Icelandic: BlÃ¡skÃ³gar literally "Blue Woods". In the National Park, 172 species of higher plants have been found, or about 40% of the Icelandic flora, so variety is not wanting. Birch, along with willow, plants of the heath family, and dwarf birch, transform the appearance of Ãingvellir in autumn, and many make their way there to enjoy the beauty of its pastel colours.
Lake Ãingvallavatn is particularly deep and thus does not attract as many waterfowl as do shallower lakes such as Lake MÃ½vatn. Generally, 52 bird species live by the lake, while 30 others come and go. The most famous bird is the great northern diver, which nests in a few places by the lake. It's grouchy and protects its territory energetically. Iceland is the easternmost point for the great northern diver, which has its roots in North America.
Fox sneaks around hillocks and high spots. It has shared the countryside with humans since the settlement and can be found by Lake Ãingvallavatn, as well as elsewhere in Iceland. The newest resident of Lake Ãingvallavatn is probably the mink, which was first brought to Iceland in 1931 for its fur. Soon afterwards, a few mink escaped from their cages, and now mink can be found everywhere around the country. Like so many other creatures, the mink thrives at Ãingvallavatn and can often be seen by the shoreline of the lake.
The Ãingvellir area forms part of the volcanic fissure zone running right through Iceland, In turn, this zone is part of the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which extend the length of the Atlantic from north to south.
The Ãingvellir plains are the westernmost part of a rift valley stretching from the mountains in the northeast and down towards lake Ãingvallavatn. The horsts delimiting the valley are the cliffs of AlmannagjÃ¡ fault to the west and the HeiÃ°argjÃ¡ fault to the east. Over the past 10,000 years the valleyâs appearance has been shaped by the spreading and sinking of the Earthâs crust. The tectonic plates west of AlmannagjÃ¡ and east of HeiÃ°argjÃ¡ are gradually moving apart by an average of 3 mm per year. Measurements suggest that the graben the floor of the valley has widened 70 meters in the space of 10,000 years, and sunk by 40 meters at the same time â the difference between the top of AlmannagjÃ¡ and the plains below.
As well as moving gradually, the land displaces at intervals of several hundred years. In 1789 Ãingvellir was struck by a wave of earthquakes lasting ten days. The valley floor between AlmannagjÃ¡ and HeiÃ°argjÃ¡ sank by almost 2 meters then, mostly in the middle, and spread considerably too.
Ãingvallavatn is the largest natural lake in Iceland, with a surface area of 84 square kilometers. It lies at an altitude of around 100 m above sea level. At its deepest point it measures 114 meters, while the average depth is 34 meters. There are three islands in the lake. Almost nine-tenths of the water inflow comes from springs and fissures on the bed of the lake or at its shore. The wide underground catchment area for water extends as far as LangjÃ¶kull glacier. Only one-tenth of the inflow is surface water from brooks and rivers, the largest of which is ÃxarÃ¡. Average outflow at the only drainage point, the river Sog, is around 110 meters cubed per second.
The Lake Ãingvallavatn biosphere clearly testifies to the fact that it straddles on the border between the continents of Europe and North America. The great northern diver, a bird native to North America, breeds around the lake and gathers in flocks at the lake in autumn. Other migrant birds from North America are barrowâs goldeneye and the harlequin duck. White-tailed eagles nested on the slopes of DrÃ¡ttarhlÃÃ°a and Arnarfell in olden times, but are rarely seen now. Mink live by the lake, preying on small birds and foxes make occasional appearances.
The greatest biological wonder at Ãingvallavatn, however, is its fish population. No other lake in the world supports four separate species of arctic charr. At the top of the food chain is the brown trout. Some brown trout are known to have weighed more than 30 lbs, but even at their peak, the average was around 11 lbs. However, the fish stocks in the lake went into serious decline after the upper Sog river was harnessed for hydroelectricity production in 1959, which disrupted the largest spawning grounds of the brown trout. Large brown trout can still be seen in ÃxarÃ¡, however, during the autumn spawning season.
The history of Ãingvellir 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 AlÃ¾ing, which first convened at Ãingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains goÃ°ar with some participation by ordinary people.
The AlÃ¾ing was Iceland's legislative and chief judicial authority for the duration of the Commonwealth, until 1271. Executive power was in the 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 AlÃ¾ing but was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later Danish rulers until the King of Denmark became absolute monarch of Iceland in 1662.
Ãingvellir 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 Ãingvellir took 17 days to reach from the farthest flung parts of east Iceland.
Ãingvellir was the centre of Icelandic culture. Every year during the Commonwealth period people would flock to Ãingvellir 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 Ãingvellir 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. Ãingvellir 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.
LÃ¶gberg, the Law Rock, was the focal point of the AlÃ¾ing 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 LÃ¶gberg, 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 "goÃ°ar", their advisers and later also bishops. However, everyone at the assembly was entitled to watch and listen to the Law Council work.
When Iceland became part of the Norwegian realm in 1262, the structure of the AlÃ¾ing was changed, and when the legal code "Iron Side" was adopted in 1271-73 the Law Rock lost its function. Assembly duties were then largely confined to the Law Council.
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 Ãingvellir became an execution site. Many names in the landscape give testament to the cruelty of those times.
Although the AlÃ¾ing 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 Ãingvellir 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.
Ãingvellir was declared a national park in 1930. A law was passed designating Ãingvellir 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."