Education and Culture
One of the Embassy´s goals is to promote Icelandic culture in the US and strengthen the educational ties between the two countries. The Embassy occasionally hosts cultural events in the Washington D.C. and can act as a facilitator in the cultural exchange between artists.
The Embassy provides information on educational and research opportunities for Americans in Iceland. Currently, around 400 Icelanders are studying in the US, along with a considerable number of researchers.
Iceland offers a wide range of educational opportunities for foreign citizens. Many universities now offer courses in English.
Further Information can be found on the website Study in Iceland.
One of the Embassy's tasks is to promote cultural exchange between Iceland and the US. The Embassy works closely with various cultural institutions in Iceland in promoting cultural events in the US, along with the Consulate General of Iceland in New York.
See Event Calendar to the right for cultural events.
This part of the website contains material on Iceland, especially prepared for children and school projects.
Information sheet for school projects:
Brief history of Iceland
The first people known to have habitated Iceland were Irish monks or hermits who came in the eight century, but left with the arrival of the pagan Norsemen, who systematically settled Iceland in the period 870 - 930 A.D. Iceland was thus the last European country to be settled.
The main source of information about the settlement period in Iceland is the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), written in the 12th century, which gives a detailed account of the first settlers. According to this book Ingólfur Arnarson was the first settler. He was a chieftain from Norway, arriving in Iceland with his family and dependents in 874. He built his farm in Reykjavík, the site of the present capital. During the next 60 years or so viking settlers from Scandinavia, bringing some Celtic people with them, spread their homesteads over the habitable areas. In the year 930, at the end of the Settlement period, a constitutional law code was accepted and the Alþingi established. The judicial power of the Alþingi was distributed between 4 local courts and a kind of a Supreme Court held annually at the national assembly at Þingvellir.
In the year 1000 Christianity was peacefully adopted by the Icelanders at the Alþingi, which met for two weeks every summer, attracting a large proportion of the population. The first bishopric was established at Skálholt in South Iceland in 1056, and a second at Hólar in the north in 1106. Both became the country’s main centers of learning.
In the late tenth century Greenland was discovered and colonized by the Icelanders under the leadership of Erik the Red, and around the year 1000 the Icelanders were the first Europeans to set foot on the American continent, 500 years before Columbus, although their attempts to settle in the New World failed.
In 1262-1264 internal feuds, amounting to a civil war, led to submission to the king of Norway and a new monarchial code in 1271. When Norway came under the control of the Danish crown and the Kalmar Union was formed in 1397, Iceland fell under the sovereignty of the King of Denmark.
After the "Golden Age" of independent Iceland had ended, things went from bad to worse. The Danish kings brought about the Reformation of the Church in 1551, which resulted in Danish control over the Church, and confiscation of its great wealth. They replaced the Hansa and English trade with an oppressive Danish trade monopoly, and established absolute monarchy in 1662, thus transferring all governing power to Copenhagen. While this arrangement was very profitable for the Danish Crown, these changes were disastrous for the Icelandic economy. Further problems arose in the food supply due to cooling of the climate during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The eighteenth century marked the most tragic age in Iceland’s history. In 1703, when the first complete census was taken, the population was approximately 50,000, of whom about 20% were beggars and dependents. From 1707 to 1709 the population sank to about 35,000 because of a devastating smallpox epidemic. Twice more the population declined below 40,000, both during the years 1752-57 and 1783-85, owing to a series of famines and natural disasters.
At the end of the 18th century the Alþingi had been dissolved and the old diocese replaced by one bishop residing in Reykjavík. As a consequence of the plight of the populace the trade monopoly was modified in 1783 and all subjects of the Danish king given the right to trade in Iceland.
In 1843 the Alþingi was reinstituted as a consultative assembly. In 1854 foreign trade was given entirely free. In 1874, when Iceland celebrated the millennium of the first settlement, it received a constitution from the Danish king and control of its own finances.
In 1904 Iceland got home rule and finally in 1918 sovereignty, but was united with Denmark under the Danish crown. In 1940 Iceland was occupied by British forces, which were replaced in 1941 by American troops by special agreement between the Icelandic and American governments. Finally, on 17 June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was formally proclaimed at Þingvellir.
Iceland has a written constitution. A president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of four years, with no term limit. The President personifies the integrity of the nation but is to remain apolitical, except in cases when the political parties have difficulties in forming a government, or fail to solve a government crisis. The Alþingi is a legislative body of 63 members elected for a term of four years by a popular vote. Anyone who is eligible to vote can run for a Parliamentary seat, with the exception of the President and the judges of the Supreme Court. After new elections the President calls in the leaders of the political parties for discussions and then gives the floor to one or more in succession to form a cabinet. A cabinet of ministers stays in power until the next general elections. The ministers are eo ipso members of Alþingi. If such is not the case, they take a seat on the ministerial bench with the full rights of a member except the right to vote.
Iceland was settled by a mixed stock of Norsemen from Scandinavia and Celts from the British Isles. The ruling class was Nordic, so that both the language and culture of Iceland were purely Scandinavian from the outset, but there are traces of Celtic influence in some of the Eddaic poems, in personal and place names and in the appearance of present-day Icelanders who have a higher percentage of the dark-haired type than the other Nordic nations.
The early blending of Nordic and Celtic blood may partly account for the fact that the Icelanders, alone of all the Nordic people, produced great literature in the Middle Ages. Immigration of foreign elements has been minimal since the first settlement, and there are no Inuits (Eskimos) in Iceland, contrary to common belief.
Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with an average of 2 inhabitants per square km. Almost four-fifths of the country are uninhabited and mostly uninhabitable, the settlements being limited to a narrow coastal belt, valleys and the lowland plains in the south and southwest.
Around the year 1100 the population, then entirely rural, is estimated to have been about 70 - 80,000. Three times in the eighteenth century it sank below 40,000 but by the year 1900 it had reached 78,000. In 1925 it had passed the 100,000 mark, in 1967 it reached 200,000 and is now over 319.000 The average life expectancy for men is 79 years and for women 83 years - one of the world’s highest averages.
In 1880 there were only three towns in Iceland, where 5% of the population lived. By 1920 about 43% of the population lived in towns and villages with more than 200 inhabitants. By 1984 there were 23 towns and 42 villages where 89,2% of the population lived, while only 10,8% lived in rural districts. In the future it is estimated that most of the Icelanders will live in the greater Reykjavík area.
Icelandic is the national language and is believed to have changed very little from the original tongue spoken by the Norse settlers, but English and Danish are widely spoken and understood. Icelandic has two letters of its own, Þ/þ and Ð/ð. Þ is pronounced as th in "thing" and Ð is pronounced as the th in "them".
Most Icelanders still follow the ancient tradition of deriving their last name from the first name of their father. If a man is called Leifur Eiríksson his name is Leifur and he is Eiríksson (the son of a man called Eiríkur). A woman called Þórdís Haraldsdóttir has the personal name Þórdís and is Haraldsdóttir (i.e. Harald’s daughter). If Þórdís Haraldsdóttir marries Leifur Eiríksson she does not become Eiríksson, like her husband. She continues to be Þórdís Haraldsdóttir. If Þórdís and Leifur have a son, he would have Leifsson as a last name, and their daughter would have Leifsdóttir as her last name. We have to keep in mind that Eiríksson, Leifsson and Haraldsdóttir are not really names as such, but patronymics, which refer to their fathers. For this reason Icelanders always have to be referred to by their given names. The patronymic is never used alone. Icelanders say, for example, the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, or even President Ólafur, but never "President Grímsson". There is a limited number of Icelanders who do have family names.
The established church in Iceland is the Evangelical Lutheran Church. There are many Lutheran churches in Iceland and services are usually held every Sunday at 11 a.m., or 2 p.m. There is also a Catholic church in Reykjavík, and a number of churches for other groups.
Church of Iceland 92,2% Other Lutherans 3,1% Roman Catholics 0,9% Others 3,8%
Literacy has been universal in Iceland since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1907 school attendance was made obligatory for all children aged 10-14; before the age of 10 they were generally taught at home. In 1946 compulsory school attendance was extended, and at present it covers the ages between 7 and 16. Those who wish to continue their education, either go to various specialized schools or to secondary schools.
Academic education in the full sense did not begin in Iceland until 1847 with the formation of a Theological Seminary. It was followed in 1876 by a Medical School and in 1908 by a School of Law. These three institutions were merged into one in 1911 when the University of Iceland was established. Later, a fourth Faculty of Philosophy was added, primarily dealing with Icelandic philology, history and literature. The university’s main building was opened in 1940. All education in Iceland is free of charge.
Since World War II Iceland has enjoyed a high standard of living, comparable to that of the other Nordic countries. From 1901 to 1960 real national income rose ten-fold with an annual average rate of growth of just over 4 percent. During this period the national economy underwent dramatic changes, transforming it from a subsistence into an exchange economy through rapid urbanization and other features of industrialization.
The quality of housing in Iceland is probably higher than anywhere else, while the Icelandic roads are poorer than in most countries with a comparable living standard. This is mainly due to the size of the country and the scarcity of the population.
Fish and fish products constitute more than 70% of Iceland’s exports and it thus by far the most important industry. The continental shelf around Iceland, where the warm Gulf Stream and the cold nutrient currents from the Arctic meet, offers very favorable conditions for various kinds of marine life, and are extremely rich fishing grounds. The fishing grounds, which are Iceland’s main natural resources, require strict protection, and fish catches are tightly controlled. The main species of fish are: cod, haddock, saithe, redfish, herring and capelin.
Agricultural land in Iceland is mostly used for growing grass for the making of hay and silage as fodder for livestock. Sheep and dairy cattle make up the main livestock in Icelandic farming. Presently, Icelandic farmers produce more lamb and various dairy products than is needed for the national consumption. And as in most other places in the world, these commodities are not exported without considerable difficulties.
It is estimated that the potential total exploitable hydro-electric power in Iceland amounts to 64,000 Gwh p.a., of which 45,000 Gwh p.a. are considered to be economical. However, only 4,200 Gwh p.a. were being utilized in 1990.
No one knows exactly how much geo-thermal power is available in Iceland but it is without much doubt tremendous. In 1990 the exploited capacity had reached about 5,000 Gwh p.a., bringing 81% of the population geothermal heating for their houses. Power is therefore among our most important resources, and more importantly, this is all pollution-free energy.
Given the incredible growth potential of manufacturing industries, Icelandic authorities have sought to make the country more appealing for various power intensive industries. Presently aluminum accounts for about 11% of the country’s exports, while other manufacturing products account for about 12%, including ferr-silicone.
Sayings like "There is no weather in Iceland, only samples" or "If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change," indicate the variability of the Icelandic climate. It is cool temperate and oceanic, influenced by the country’s location in the boundary zone where the polar front separates air currents of polar and tropical origin, and by the confluence of two different ocean currents, the Gulf Stream flowing clockwise around the south and west coasts, and the East Greenland polar current curving southeastwards round the north and east coasts, which meet off the southeast coast. A third element affecting the climate is the Arctic drift ice brought by the polar current, which occasionally blocks the north and east coasts in late winter and early spring. The advance of drift ice causes a considerable fall in the temperature and usually some decrease in precipitation. Midnight Sun: For two to three months in summer there is continuous daylight in Iceland, and early spring and late autumn enjoy long twilights. The really dark period (three to four hours daylight) lasts from about mid-November until the end of January. Since 1965 the climate has been considerably cooler than during the period 1920-65. Fluctuations in average annual temperature are more pronounced in Iceland than most other places, mainly owing to the fact that the country is located just south of the main channel through which the ice exits from the Arctic. In Britain, for instance, the deviation is only one-third of that in Iceland. The crucial difference between the a warm period and a cold one is a matter of merely 1.5°C.
Capital: Reykjavík ("Smoky Bay")
Population of Iceland 2004: 293,500
President of Iceland (since 1996): Dr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
Prime Minister of Iceland (since 2009): Ms. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
Currency: Icelandic kronur (Rate of exchange approx. Feb. 2009. 115 Ikr = 1 US$)
Total area of Iceland: 39,756 square miles
The Icelandic Coat of Arms
The Icelandic Coat of Arms is a silvery cross in a sky-blue field with a fiery red cross in the silvery one. The shield-bearers are the four guardian spirits of the land: A bull to the right of the shield, a giant to the left, a vulture to the right above the bull, and a dragon to the left above the giant. The shield rests on a slab of basalt.
The Icelandic National Flag
The Icelandic National Flag is sky-blue (Colour: SCOTDIC No. 693009) with a snow-white (Colour: SCOTDIC No. 95) cross and fiery red (Colour: SCOTDIC Iceland Flag Red) cross in the white cross. The arms of the crosses extend entirely to the edges of the flag, and their width is 2/9th, but the red cross is 1/9th of the width of the flag. The blue field is thus divided into rectangular squares: Those nearest to the flag-pole are equilateral and the outer squares are equally wide, but twice as long. The proportional figures for the widt and length of the flag are 18:25.
Iceland is richer in hot springs and high-temperature activity than any other country in the world. High-temperature activity is limited to the new volcanic median zone where there are 14 solfatara fields. They are characterized by stam vents, mud pools, and precipitation of sulphur.
The main high-temperature areas are Torfajökull east of Hekla and Grímsvötn in the Vatnajökull glacier. Next in order of size are Hengill near Reykjavík, which is now being exploited to provide hot water for space heating in the capital, Kerlingarfjöll, Námafjall, Kverkfjöll and Krísuvík. The total power output of the Torfajökull area, which is the largest, is estimated to be equivalent to 1,500 megawatts. Some of the high-temperature areas have workable sulphur deposits.
Low -temperature fields. Hot springs are found all over Iceland, but they are rare in the eastern basalt area. There are about 250 geothermal areas of this type with a total of about 800 hot springs. The average temperature of their water is 75°celsius (167°F). The biggest hot spring in Iceland, Deildartunguhver, has a flow of 150 litres (40 gallons) of boiling water per second. Some of the hot springs are spouting springs or geysirs, the most famous being Geysir in Haukadalur in south Iceland, from which the international word geysir is derived. It used to eject a water column to a height of about 180 feet, but has been "lazy" in later years. Another renowned geysir in the same field as Geysir is Strokkur. Springs charged with carbon dioxide are to be found in some districts, mainly in Snæfellsnes, but have not yet been utilized. Since the last Hekla eruption, springs rising from under the new lava have also been found to be charged with carbon dioxide.
Among the most distinctive features of Iceland are its glaciers, which cover 4,536 square miles (11,800 km2) or 11,5% of the total area of the country. During the past few decades, however, they have markedly thinned and retreated owing to a milder climate, and some of the smaller ones have all but vanished.
Largest glaciers in Europe: By far the largest of the glacier caps is Vatnajökull in southeast Iceland with an area of 3,240 square miles (8,400km2), equal in size to all the glaciers on the European mainland put together. It reaches a thickness of 3,000 feet (1,000m). One of its southern outlets, Breidamerkurjökull, descends to sea level.
Avalanches: These are common in the northwest, north and east, where the steep mountain slopes, covered with deep snow, threaten the inhabited areas. In many of those areas farms have been destroyed and people killed by avalanches. The worst disaster of this kind in recent times occurred in the town of Neskaupstadur on the east coast in December 1974, when an avalanche destroyed a large fish-processing plant and some houses, killing thirteen people. And on January 17, 1995 an avalanche killed 14 people in the small town of Súdavík in the west coast.
For Pen-Pals, please write to: MORGUNBLADID, Kringlunni 1, 103 Reykjavik, Iceland. This daily newspaper prints ads for pen-pals free of charge.
Iceland on the Internet
Commerce and Fiance:
Icelandic Morning Paper (only in Icelandic)
Tourism and Culture: