Friday, June 15, 2012

Things I Find Fascinating: 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Iceland

1)  Iceland has been continuously inhabited for over 1,100 years.  According to Landnámabók (a medieval Icelandic text which, translated, means “The Book of Settlements”), the settlement of Iceland began in AD 874 when the chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norse settler on the island. Others had visited the island earlier and stayed over the winter, but ultimately decided to live somewhere else.

Ingólfur Arnarson

2)  Until the 20th century, Iceland relied largely on fisheries and agriculture, and was one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.  By the 1990s, it had become one of the world's wealthiest countries, thanks to its industrialization of the fisheries and aid from the Marshall Plan following World War II.

Commercial fishing boat off the coast of Iceland

3)  Iceland has no standing army.  From 1951 to 2006, Iceland had a unique agreement with the United States that required us to provide defense to Iceland when needed. However, even though the Iceland Defense Force agreement has now been terminated and the American military base there has closed, the United States is still responsible for defending its ally should a "surged expeditionary presence" be deemed necessary.

NAS Keflavik, former U.S. navy base in Iceland

4)  Sveinn Björnsson was the first President of the Republic of Iceland, leading his country from its first days as an autonomous nation in 1944 till his death in 1952.  Björnsson had previously served as the Icelandic minister to Denmark (on two separate occasions) and Regent of Iceland three times (during World War II). A true Renaissance man, Björnsson was also one of the founders of Eimskipafélag Íslands (Iceland's main shipping company), Brunabótafélag Íslands (a prominent Icelandic insurance company), Sjóvátryggingafélag Íslands (another insurance company), and the Icelandic Red Cross.

Sveinn Björnsson

5)  The Icelandic island of Grímsey – just north of the main island – has long been notorious for its highly skilled chess players.  So much so that American scholar and keen chess player Willard Fiske sent the people of Grímsey a number of chess sets and funded the building of a library on the island (though Fiske never visited Grímsey personally).

Grandmaster Henrik Danielsen of Iceland

6)  Iceland is the world's 18th largest island.  At 39,315 square miles, Iceland is larger than Ireland, Hispaniola (the island that comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Tasmania, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Sicily, to name a few.

Iceland from outer space

7)  There are no native or free living reptiles or amphibians in Iceland.  So, if you're scared of snakes or frogs or other similar slithering beasties, this is the place to be! There are also relatively few species of insects living in Iceland. A few polar bears occasionally visit the island, but no Icelandic polar bear populations currently exist. Bats visit sometimes, too, but aren't able to breed in Iceland. The Arctic Fox is the only land mammal native to the island, having already made a home in Iceland when the first humans arrived.

Arctic Fox  (I want to hug it sooo bad!!!)

8)  The beginning of the end of the Cold War took place in Iceland.  Even today, some twenty-five-plus years later, Icelanders remain especially proud of their role in hosting the historic 1986 Reagan–Gorbachev Summit in the capital city of Reykjavík, which set the stage for the end of the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan (left); Mikhail Gorbachev (right)

9)  Two things here:  First, the über-eclectic folk-pop-electronica-rock singer/songwriter Björk hails from Iceland. Secondly, the Icelandic language sounds intoxicatingly beautiful when spoken (or sung) by a native.  Here's a video that showcases both of these. (Björk switches to English about halfway through it, but you will get the idea from the first half.)

10)  Iceland is breathtakingly gorgeous to behold. If I should ever suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, Iceland is where you should look for me first. In all seriousness, I would love to visit the country at some point during my lifetime; and if I don't, I shall be sorely disappointed. Here are just a few glimpses of the deceptively named Iceland:

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