The Near North

There have always been good reasons to visit Iceland's exotic desolation, but next year will bring a few new ones

The fault line between those tectonic plates runs across Iceland from southwest to northeast, and can be explored most hauntingly at a place called Thingvellir, a wide rift valley that has been preserved as a national park. The valley is named for the Althing, Iceland's ancient legislative body and the world's earliest true parliament; the Althing was first convened here, in A.D. 930, under one of the valley's long, sheer walls. The standard one-day "golden circle" tour of southwestern Iceland always includes a stop at Thingvellir, and Tim and I had signed up for such a tour; first-time visitors probably should do the same, as a means of basic orientation. It will invariably give you too little of too much -- still, I would not want to have missed the moment when a guide, from his platform on a footbridge across a chasm dividing "Europe" and "America," began expounding on the subject of Iceland's pivotal role in NATO.

Tim and I came back to Thingvellir the next day by public bus from Reykjavík a 1:25,000 geological-survey map in hand. We had the park to ourselves. The parallel walls of the valley lie about three miles apart. The spongy green flatland in between, with its grace notes of bluebells and alpine cinquefoil, is deceptive: a foot or so of matted tundra conceals a lava plain. The plain is scored with crevices -- twenty feet wide, two or three stories deep, hundreds of yards long -- into which you can descend, with great care. (Auden, on packing for Iceland: "The most essential article is a pair of stout gumboots.") Water runs in many of the crevices, flowing into Thingvallavatn, the large lake at the park's southern end. The flatland is crossed by east-west footpaths marked with cairns. Occasional ruins fleck the site.

We followed the fissures from north to south for the length of the park, emerging at last onto the grounds of the tiny Thingvallakirkja, a nineteenth-century Lutheran church. A Christian sanctuary has stood on the site since the early eleventh century. In the middle of the sixteenth century, after a theological debate whose finer points included that of an ax blade, Iceland embraced Lutheranism. Next July an ecumenical festival is expected to draw thousands of people to Thingvellir to celebrate ten centuries of Christianity on the island.

The decision to become Christian was made by vote of the Althing (and on condition that baptisms occur in thermal pools, not frigid rivers). Next year's festival will include some Icelanders whom the original voters would never have anticipated. At mass one Sunday in the Catholic cathedral at Reykjavík, attended by what may have been a quorum of Iceland's Catholic minority, the moment came when congregants greet the people nearby. Turning around, I found a long pew full of Vietnamese. Iceland has taken in 160 Vietnamese refugees since 1979 -- something of a surprise to the rest of the world, given that the country's human gene pool has been so stable for so long that biotech companies are today vying, in effect, to bottle it. "Fridur se med ther," the Vietnamese said in Icelandic: "Peace be with you."

ONE of Iceland's advantages for a visitor is its small size. To be sure, travel by car can sometimes be slow, and a trip around the perimeter, on the country's 900-mile main highway, may take three days. But the country is only about the size of Kentucky, and Icelandair's busy domestic service can get you anywhere by small plane within an hour. Most places are closer. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where Jules Verne imagined the cratered entrance to the center of the earth to be, is forty minutes by air from Reykjavík, to the north. Europe's largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, is a fifty-minute flight to the east.

Iceland's international airport lies thirty miles out of town, on the lava wastes at Keflavík, next to the NATO base, but Reykjavík's local airport adjoins the city. After an early-morning cab ride from our headquarters at the amiable Hotel Borg -- one of the few old hotels in Reykjavík, a venerable Art Deco adornment on Parliament Square -- we took a thirty-five-minute flight to the Vestmannaeyjar, the Westmann Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Iceland's southern coast. Most of the other people on the plane were Icelandic teenagers on a golf outing to Heimaey, the largest of the islands and the only inhabited one. Above the seatbacks in front of us bobbed the tousled crowns of a dozen towheads.


is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is (1998).


The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Near North - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 46-51.

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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