A Visit to Alþingi

In front of Alþingi. Photo by Paul Cunningham, US Embassy.

Just before classes began again, we lucky Fulbrighters got to go on another cool excursion, this time to take a tour of Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament. We were first taken on a tour of parliament building itself, and then were met by Bjarni Benediktsson, a member of parliament and one of the leaders of the Independence Party. After a short Q&A with Bjarni, we also met with the director of Alþingi’s committee department, who gave us a little more information about the government’s day-to-day workings.

A few fun facts about Icelandic parliament:

-There are 63 members of the Alþingi, elected in four year cycles. At the beginning of each parliamentary year, members draw lots for seating in the parliament chamber. The idea is that this system forces people to be civil, even if they happen to be sitting next to their “worst political enemy.”

-The first woman elected to parliament was Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, who sat in Alþingi from 1922 – 1930. Per the Alþingi website: “The woman with the longest parliamentary service is Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, who has served close to 30 years, she was first elected to Althingi in 1978. Ragnhildur Helgadóttir is the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Althingi, she was elected first at age 26 years in 1956 while Aðalheiður Bjarnfreðsdóttir, who was first elected as member of the Althingi at the age of 65, was the oldest. Jóhanna Egilsdóttir entered the Althingi as an alternate when she was nearly 76 years of age.”

-The Parliament Garden was the first public garden in Iceland. The garden was actually built by members of parliament (starting in 1893), but its establishment and care-taking was primarily overseen by MP Tryggvi Gunnarsson, who “devoted endless time to working on [it].” Per his wishes, Tryggvi was buried in the garden.

-The Parliament House on Austurvöllur Square was built from 1880 – 1881. In the beginning, the building was home not only to parliament, but also three national collections–the National Library, the Antiquities Collection (which later became the National Museum), and the National Gallery. When, in 1911, the University of Iceland was founded, two of the museums moved out of parliament, and the university took up residence on the first floor. The university remained in the parliament house until its own campus was built some 29 years later, in 1940.

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