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Country of the Week: Iceland

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’re in the fascinating island country of Iceland. Once settled by Vikings, their influence is still felt in the land to this day.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Reykjavík
  • Population (2015): 330,610 (184th)
  • Total Area: 102,775km² (108th)
  • Official and National Language: Icelandic
  • Currency: Icelandic króna (kr) (ISK)
harbor boat sunset fishing iceland ship

Fishing has long been an important part of life in the country

History

Prior to the arrival of Nordic explorers, Iceland is believed to have been inhabited by a group of Celtic monks called the Papar. It wasn’t until the late 9th century when Nordic permanent settlements began to crop up. After a group of Swedish Vikings established that Iceland was in fact an island, one remained behind and became the first permanent resident in 870. Just four years later, a Norse chieftain established a home on what is now Reykjavík, which led to a great many more settlers (largely from Scandinavia) seeking out refuge in this new land. While the arable land was quickly gobbled up and many set off in search of other places (such as Greenland), permanent settlements remained in Iceland.

Throughout the mid to late Middle Ages, the population largely converted to Christianity (though some still held faith with the Old Norse gods) and established a unified commonwealth. As chieftains grew in power in the late 1200’s, this commonwealth fell apart and ushered in the Age of the Sturlungs – a time of civil strife and conflict. This bloody period only ended with the signing of the Old Covenant and passing of sovereignty over Iceland to Norway. The country remained under the sway of Norway throughout the latter’s various alliances during the next several centuries.

As the Middle Ages drew to a close, Iceland now found itself under the power of Denmark, which brought Lutheranism and harsh trade restrictions to bear on the people. The 17th and 18th centuries saw further trouble, including famine, disease, raiding from pirates (ironic when you think about it, because of the whole Viking thing), a devastating volcanic eruption, and much more.

By the early 18th century, Europe was dealing with fallout of the Napoleonic Wars – a side effect of which was the breakup of Denmark and Norway (with Iceland a Danish dependency at the time). By the mid 19th century, a push for national identity had taken shape and talk of independence was growing. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland a limited amount of self-rule, which was further expanded in 1904. In 1918, an agreement was signed which established the Kingdom of Iceland as an independent state (albeit one in a union with Denmark, which continued to run the country’s foreign policy).

During World War II, Iceland was officially neutral however this was violated after Denmark was occupied by Germany – thanks to the British invading the island in 1940. A year later the US took over the occupation and remained until the end of the war. During this time (1943 to be exact), the agreement with Denmark expired and Iceland voted to establish an independent republic – which was achieved in 1944.

Following the war, Iceland became closer to other Western countries by joining NATO and signing an agreement with the US whereby American troops would remain in the country (which they did until 2006). The economy grew greatly during this time thanks to aid and other factors, though there were fishery disputes with the UK (known as the ‘Cod Wars’). A further boom began in the early 2000’s thanks to a growing financial sector, with Iceland becoming one of the most prosperous countries on the planet. However this all came crashing down in 2008 thanks to a massive financial crisis. While the country has recovered to a degree, they are still picking up the pieces.

city iceland capital Reykjavik church winter

View over the city of Reykjavik

Culture

Thanks to Iceland’s position as an isolated island, many elements of Norse culture have been preserved here – to an even stronger degree than the larger Scandinavian countries such as Sweden or Norway. Like these other countries, Icelanders place strong faith in independence and being self-sufficient. Also like these other countries, Iceland is commonly found amongst the ‘happiest’ in the world – so they must be doing something right.

While self-sufficiency is important, egalitarianism and community are also major parts of Icelandic society. As an example of this, people are addressed by their first names and noble titles are prohibited.

Iceland is also well known for its music, which is often based on Nordic and folk tradition. Some of the most popular artists and groups include Björk, Of Monsters and Men, and Sigur Rós.

Sports are also important to the Icelandic people. Soccer, athletics, handball (where the country is considered one of the best in the world), and basketball are popular as are outdoor activities such as climbing, hiking, skiing, and snowboarding. While not historically a power, the Icelandic men’s national soccer team recently qualified for the upcoming European Championships. The country is also known for producing some of the world’s strongest people and is historically a dominant force in strongman competitions across the globe. Lastly, many chess masters have come out of Iceland and the country has hosted some of the most important matches of the last century.

spring hot geothermal swimming people iceland

Hot springs are found throughout Iceland

Geography

If you had to pick one word to describe Iceland’s geography, it would be ‘stunning’. While not extremely large, it is very sparsely populated which leaves miles of untouched wilderness to take in. The country is well known for a high amount of volcanic activity and glacial landscapes. This has resulted in geothermal power being widely used (alongside hydro). Mountains, plains, fjords, and lava fields can all be found throughout the Icelandic landscape – creating a varied and beautiful picture for anyone lucky enough to visit. Despite the country’s name, it doesn’t get too cold during the winter months (though you should expect a lot of wind).

More than half of the country’s population lives in the immediate vicinity of the capital – Reykjavík. Located on the southwest coast, the city has grown considerably since its official founding in the late 1700’s (though the first settlement almost a millennia earlier was also believed to be at the same place).

northern lights volcano iceland aurora borealis

Need we say more?

Did you know?

  • Scenes of the TV show ‘Game of Thrones’ were filmed in Iceland – particularly those ‘north of the Wall’
  • Icelandic strongman Hafthór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson was even featured as ‘The Mountain’ (Gregor Clegane) on the show
  • The country’s signature alcoholic drink is Brennivín (a type of vodka) which is sometimes known as svarti dauði (or ‘Black Death’) thanks to its strength
  • There are 130 volcanoes in the country
  • A majority of Icelanders believe in elves (according to polls), which are supposed to live in rocky areas
  • Iceland has sunlight all day and night in June and July – but you can expect some dark days in the winter
  • Skyr is a popular Icelandic food that is a soft cheese similar to yogurt
  • Iceland consumes more Coca-Cola per capita than anywhere else in the world
  • Last names are a combination of the father or mother’s first name and a suffix meaning ‘daughter or son of’ (ex: Gunnarsson = son of Gunnar)
  • Beer was banned until 1989
  • Per capita, Iceland is the best in the world (look it up!)
geyser geothermal power landscape

There is an abundance of geothermal activity in Iceland

Last Word

A history full of Vikings, a fascinating culture, and an absolutely stunning geography – I think it goes without saying that there’s a lot to love about Iceland!

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). 

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