Iceland - History & Heritage

Europe ’s most western state - Iceland

Iceland - Island in the country’s native language (Icelandic), is a European borderless state. It is officially referred to as the Republic of Iceland and it occupies a volcanic island in the northern Atlantic Ocean . Iceland is the westernmost European country having a population of approximately 300,000 people. The state’s area is of 39,698 sq mi or in the metric system, 102, 819 sq km and it is situated a little south from the Arctic Circle, about 600 mi / 970 km west of Norway and about 180 mi / 290 km south-east of Greenland. As we mentioned before the republic occupies a whole island in the Atlantic Ocean , but the fact is that it also includes several other smaller islands that gravitate around the main island from which the most important one would be the Vestmannaeyjar. Iceland is the world's 18th largest island and started to be populated only in the 9 th century when the Scandinavian Vikings discovered it.

The island’s coasts are indented by wonderful, deep fjords, which are more visible in the northern and western parts. G eologically speaking, the island is a young basalt plateau of approximately 2,000 ft / 610 m in height. The highest point in Iceland is Oraefajokull ~ 6,950 ft/ 2,120 m high). The island is covered with about 200 volcanoes, many of which are still active. The highest volcano is the Mt. Hekla of c. 4,900 ft / 1,490 m. Because of the tectonic plates that move under the ocean the Island is abounded with hot springs, which are a great attraction for tourists, but they are also a source of inexpensive heating. The most famous hot spring is the great Geysir, whose name is now used for all the water springs around the world. The climate in Iceland is quite mild and humid because of the North Atlantic Drift. However, only one fourth of the island is habitable because of the central large barren areas.

The most populated areas in Iceland are, of course, the coasts and the largest inhabited places are Reykjavik , Akureyri, Hafnarfjortur, Siglufjortur, Akranes and Isafjortur. The population is quite homogenous and isolated and it represents the offspring of the Norse settlers and the slaves they brought with them. Most of the population follows the Lutheran religion, which is also the established church. However, Iceland is very well known for its complete religious freedom. The language of this interesting people is called Icelandic and it is very similar to the Old Norse. The Vikings that conquered the country have established their language as the official language and since there hadn’t been any native language on the island Old Norse didn’t suffer too many changes along the centuries. Another interesting thing about the Icelanders is that practically all of them are literate, having been proven that they read more books per capita than any other people in the world.

The island’s history

Iceland was discovered and settled during the 9 th century by the immigrants that came from Scandinavia , Ireland and Scotland . It is believed that the Norwegian Ingolfur Arnarson was the first man who settled in Iceland in the year 870. The families of the immigrants were accompanied by servants and salves who were usually Celts or Picts brought by the Vikings from Scotland or Ireland . There are some literary texts that claim the fact that the Irish monks were the first people to have settled on the island, but there hasn’t been found any archeological evidence that can prove it. In 930 the general assembly, also known as the Althing, was founded and gave way to the Icelandic Commonwealth . The Althing is considered to be the oldest parliament in the world and it was also the predecessor of the modern legislature.

Iceland joined the Norwegian kingdom in 1262 and after about 100 years was in practice ruled by Denmark because the two Scandinavian kingdoms have joined in union. But this union was dissolved in the year 1814, through the Treaty of Kiel, and Norway was handed over to Sweden . In this case, Iceland became a Danish dependency. The island finally gained its independence in 1918, but its foreign relations were still carried out by the Danish government until the World War II. In 1944 the current republic was founded. In 1949 the republic became a member of NATO and signed a treaty with the US in 1951, which permitted the US government to take defense of Iceland . There still is a US military base in Keflavik , which continues to function as a result of this agreement. However, Iceland has no military forces of its own. The most important disputes with its neighbors were about the fishing industry. After the wars, Iceland ’s economy has been dependant on its fisheries and this disturbed some neighboring countries that had the same interests. The most important clashes were the so-called Cod Wars with Great Britain . However, during the last decades the economy became more colorful as large investments have been made in the field of heavy industry and in the privatization of the financial sector. The Republic is a member of the European Union’s common market through the EEA agreement, but hasn’t expressed its interest of becoming a member of the European Union itself.