A thousand years ago around this time families from all over Iceland followed a network of trails to Thingvellir. They walked along glacial valleys, over hills or along the coast. Some took more than two weeks to make the journey.
Thingvillir is a rift valley, part of the mid-Atlantic ridge. The longest mountain range in the world, only one part of which pokes above the ocean -- Iceland. And Iceland it’s the only mountain range with a valley on top. This is the place where Iceland is coming apart, where the tectonic forces that gave birth to this island 20 million years ago are pulling the island apart.
Thingvellir is where the North American plate and the Eurasian plates move away from each other at the blistering speed of 2 centimetres a year. It is also the site of the first and longest running European Parliament, as Icelanders are pleased to point out.
From 930 to 1262 AD, when Iceland came under the suzerainty of the Norwegian king, people gathered to hear the laws spoken, settle disputes, sell and trade and -- perhaps most important -- find spouses. The latter was especially important in a country that had no villages or towns. People lived in scattered farms and there was little opportunity for sustained social contact.
But why here? Is there something special about Thingvellir? From the edges of the North American plate one looks out over Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in the country, with its distinctive volcanic islands. In the distance, a dark crease marks the side of another eroded volcanic ridge -- the edge of the Eurasian plate. No one knows for sure what first brought people here but the place has a natural acoustic quality that would have allowed voices to carry. I has fresh water. And, when it is quiet and deserted this UNESCO World Heritage Site has a feeling of power about it that is hard to describe. Maybe it’s the geological forces beneath your feet. Or maybe it comes from imagining what the place would have looked like invaded by several thousand medieval Icelanders in homespun and fur, carrying their goods and weapons (which were not taken into the meeting area) on small, sturdy Icelandic horses.
Today is a different kind of invasion -- 125 students and educators led by Icelandic scholar, poet and rock climber Ari Trausti Gudmundsson. Ari tells us about this place and its geological and historical importance. We are moving from what author and educator James Raffan calls “public knowledge” to “personal knowledge”. Raffan, who has written nearly 20 books and is now on a journey tracing the Arctic Circle, explained that “personal knowledge is the knowledge that derives from action.”
It is the philosophy that Students on Ice lives by. Over 11 years, SOI has taken more than 1600 young people to the Arctic and Antarctic. These students are not passive receptacles into which the educators onboard pour knowledge into, although there are a lot of lectures and lessons over the next two weeks. Rather, they will be agents of their own learning. Just as they have been doing in Iceland, in the Arctic the real learning will happen through whatever connection they make to the places they will be in.
And those connections will come in unexpected ways, as happened at Thingvellir. The Iceland Government declared a minute of silence to honour the victims of last week’s bombing and shooting rampage in Oslo. It wasn’t lost on the students that most of the victims were around their age.
Words ceased. Heads bowed. Silence in Thingvellir.