Fischer vs Spassky

Halló from Iceland,

When Reykjavik was the venue for the 1972 World Chess Championship, that was during the height of the Cold War and Iceland offered neutrality when the two finalists were from each of the two superpowers.

The building was pointed out . . . but it’s just a building: unremarkable really and not really worth visiting, even for a chess buff – or even for photographing for this post.

On the other hand, the site of the world’s first parliament is a very different proposition in every respect.

Apart from dating from a millennium ago plus, it represents an enduring idea. The Cold War was all negative and, thankfully, temporary. The parliament is still a feature of the way we live, and will endure.

In fact, the Icelanders of the 10th century can provide us with some great lessons on the way to participate in democracy. The annual parliament was a festival for the whole population. People from different clans in different parts of the island gathered to meet. It was a festival of lawmaking doubling as a matchmaking opportunity.


The lawmaking event – known as Althingi – was established in 930 AD, only half a century after the Vikings had arrived from Norway. It met annually at Law Rock near modern-day Thingvellir. It was not only the first body to exercise legislative mandate at a national level, but it represented a gathering. Many marriages were arranged in Iceland at the time but many free marriages began there, too. Each year, the speaker would begin proceedings by reading out existing laws after which the representatives would set about making new laws.

The venue for the first parliament was chosen not just for its centrality or even its natural beauty but for its acoustics.

Lawmaking in more recent times has become a secretive affair (hence the expression ‘held in camera’) where the populace are reduced to distant victims: subjects of control rather than active participants. The democracy of the modern world is a source of derision or resignation rather than a moment of celebration.

The booths which were built to house the groups of legislators and chieftains were dotted along the picturesque stream, very close to the fissure which represents the junction of two tectonic plates.

Ruins of the booths from Althingi

The original Althingi site was also the place where Icelanders officially converted to Christianity (under duress from the Danish king), the adoption of the constitution upon independence from Denmark and the 1000 year commemoration in 1930.

The Fischer vs Spassky series was great for chess but otherwise a forgettable moment in history. The site of the world’s first parliament is worthy of enshrinement forever.

Vertu blessa∂ur from Iceland,


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