About 30 miles North East of Reykjavik is Þingvellir National Park. Here there are many visible signs of volcanic activity within the past two millenia.
The park crosses a rift valley separating the Continental plates of Europe and America. These tectonic plates are now steadily pulling apart, at a rate of about an inch a year.
But this is not only a spectacular spot, of immense geological significance. Þingvellir is the locale of Iceland’s ancient parliament – the AlÞing, or plains of the people – one of the world’s oldest extant political institutions.
Here Iceland’s settlers established what is known as the “Old Commonwealth” in 930, and the commonwealth’s general assemblies (which anyone could attend) were held at Þingvellir annually between then and 1262. Indeed, through all of Iceland’s constitutional changes during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Þingvellir remained the official space of assembly for the Icelandic people until 1798. I confess to being something of a Commonwealth nerd: much of my Phd research and first book explored women’s attachment to this noble political ideal from the English Republic to the early years of the American Revolution. I also have a thing for outdoor assembly spaces: indeed, my favourite spot on earth is one. I found Þingvellir an incredibly impressive and deeply moving place to be.
Here there are no monuments, no palaces, no relics of individual wealth or power. Across the valley stands a modest church, similar in form to many Icelandic churches.
The power here derives from the landscape itself, and from the knowledge that this is a place that for over a thousand years, has played an important role in the lives of all Icelandic people. During the first Commonwealth, Þingvellir was not only the spot where political decisions were made and laws passed, but also a locale of celebration and festival for the majority of ordinary folk. Centrally located to be accessed by a ride of no more than a couple of weeks, scattered family members met once a year; friends shared the news from their respective regions; and young men and women might lay eyes on future partners. Þingvellir has always played a central role in the cultural life of the Icelandic nation.
There are many things I found vaguely utopian about Iceland: it is certainly a paradise for anyone who loves knitting or the great outdoors; a recent World Economic Foundation report ranked it top of all nations for gender equality and here LGBT couples are accorded the same rights to marriage, surrogacy, and adoption as their straight counterparts. But for me this site of ancient democracy — a rift in the earth where an entire nation might gather in a spirit of collective self-determination — is the most utopian thing of all.