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Iceland's Ancient & Modern History

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The Ancient History of Iceland

Before you begin your Iceland travel, enhance your experience by learning a little more about the country’s ancient history. Island’s history is closely connected with nearby Norway and Denmark, but the first people to actually inhabit the island were Irish monks, who used Iceland as a hermitage of sorts until the early 800s. The monks were followed by permanent settlers from Norway; one early source states that the first settlers were Ingolfr Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Frodadottir, who came to Iceland from Norway in 874, staked their homestead in the southwest, and called it Reykjavik. Over the next several decades, Ingolfr and Hallveig were followed by hundreds of other settlers, most from Norway, but some from other Nordic countries and settlements in the British Isles.

The settlers formed a parliamentary government system, complete with district assembly, National Assembly (or Althing), code of law and courts of justice. While farmers had political rights, the democratic practice did not include women or common workers. The conversion of Icelanders to Christianity in 999 helped to further unify the people. A tour of Iceland today allows the opportunity to see the influence Christianity still has on the present-day island culture. Over the next 100 years peace reigned and an agrarian economy developed and flourished. The people raised both sheep and cattle for meat, milk, and wool.

By the 13th century the royal power in Norway had strengthened and King Hakon Hakonarson was determined to unite all Norwegian settlements under his reign. By the early 1260s Iceland was under Norwegian power. The next 300 years brought difficulty and turbulence. In the 1300s Icelanders suffered from several eruptions of volcanic Mt. Hekla, resulting in severe death and destruction. Mount Hekla is still an active volcano today, and a popular destination for those enjoying Iceland travel. The volcano is recognized for its notorious history, but also has incredible beauty. In 1380, Norway and Denmark united, putting Iceland under Danish rule. During this time, Iceland’s economy deteriorated, because of deforestation, soil erosion, and an increasingly severe climate, all of which affected the island’s agriculture. Iceland was not immune to the infamous plague that hit Europe; the Black Death struck twice in the 15th century, killing off nearly half of the population.

In the 1530s, the Reformation came to Denmark. The people of Iceland, however, held out stubbornly against Lutheranism for 20 years before their resistance lost its stronghold. After the Reformation, Denmark tightened its hold on Iceland, confiscating all monastery lands, monopolizing foreign trade, and introducing a bureaucratic system. By the early 1700s, the population of Iceland was a little more than 50,000, with most people making their living either in farming or fishing. As the century progressed, some of the people slowly began to cluster into towns. Reykjavik was just a small village in the 1750s, but by the time the Danish governor settled there in the early 1800s, its population had reached 300.

The move for independence began in the early 19th century. The Icelanders expressed a desire to reinstate the Althing as a local representative assembly. This wish was granted by the Danish king, Christian VIII, in 1845. Over the next several decades, the Icelanders and the Danes worked to reach an agreement on Iceland’s status, but it was not until 1874—the millennium anniversary of Iceland’s settlement—that King Frederick VII granted the Althing legislative power in domestic affairs. After several more decades of struggling for independence, Iceland finally became a separate state under Danish rule in 1918. In 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark, the connection between the two countries dissolved. After the war, Iceland severed all ties with Denmark, and established an independent republic. Sveinn Bjornsson became Iceland’s first president on June 17, 1944. If you travel in the middle of June you can experience Iceland’s National Day, which is annually celebrated on the seventeenth.

Iceland’s Modern History: What You Should Know Before Your Tour

World War II brought prosperity to Iceland in a time of economic stagnancy. The arrival of British and U.S. forces in the early 1940s brought employment to the country’s 120,000 residents. In 1949, Iceland became a charter member of NATO; two years later the government allowed the United States to take responsibility for defense of the country. If you take a tour of Iceland today you can still find U.S. military forces stationed on a base in Keflavik in southwestern Iceland, though they are currently reducing their presence there.

Fishing has remained a significant portion of Iceland’s economy, but this dependence has also caused the country some trouble. In 1950, Iceland expanded its fishing zone from three nautical miles to 200, sparking protests and military action from the United Kingdom and West Germany. The so-called “Cod Wars” lasted until 1976, when Britain finally recognized the 200-mile limit. In the past 30 years, however, fish stocks in Icelandic waters have drastically depleted, forcing Iceland to impose restrictions on local fishing limits and venture even farther across the ocean to seek adequate fishing areas. Such venturing has not been appreciated by Norway and Russia, and disputes have arisen over Icelanders fishing in the Barents Sea.

More recently, Iceland has sought to grow its economy by investing in such industry as aluminum smelting, and it is also deregulating and privatizing the financial sector. Iceland entered the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1970, and can therefore participate in the European market without having to be a member of the European Union. Recent domestic disagreements have arisen over whether or not Iceland should become part of the EU. If you take an Iceland tour today, the country remains outside the EU, but the Social Democratic Party is pushing for EU membership.

Iceland Travel: Learn About the Local Politics

It may surprise travelers to know that Iceland is the world’s oldest democracy. Shortly after its settlement in the late 9th century, the people formed their own ruling body, the Althing, which, except for the first half of the 19th century, has existed continuously, in one form or another, up to the present. Though in Iceland’s early years only male landowners had any voice in government, today all citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote—and in any given election, about 85% of eligible voters get out to the polls.

After declaring independence from Denmark in 1944, the new Republic of Iceland established a parliamentary democracy with the head of state a directly elected president. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, first elected in 1996, is in the midst of his third term as president. The real power, however, resides with the Althing, which, in today’s political system, is the 63-member parliament. Members are elected every four years, unless the coalition parliament is dissolved and new elections are needed. The prime minister-appointed cabinet must maintain majority support in the Althing; generally the cabinet members are appointed according to which parties hold the most seats in the parliament. In the 60+ years of the Republic of Iceland’s existence, no party has ever held the majority vote, making a coalition government necessary. The prime minister is usually the majority party leader or the leader of the majority coalition. If enjoying Iceland travel today, Geir Haarde, a member of the Independence Party, was just elected prime minister in June 2006.

The center-to-conservative Independence Party has taken one-third to two-fifths of the popular vote since the 1970s. The Progressive Party is generally the second leading party, and other popular parties include the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Party. The Independence and Progressive parties have formed coalition governments from time to time.

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