Reykjavik

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January 17, 2017
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Reykjavik

Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland. It has a latitude of 64°08′ N, making it the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state, and is a popular tourist destination.  It is located in southwestern Iceland, on the southern shore of Faxa Bay. With a population of around 130,000 (and over 200,000 in the Capital Region), it is the heart of Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental activity.

Reykjavík is believed to be the location of the first permanent settlement in Iceland, which, according to Ingólfur Arnarson, was established in AD 874. Until the 19th century, there was no urban development in the city location. The city was founded in 1786 as an official trading town and grew steadily over the next decades, as it transformed into a regional and later national centre of commerce, population, and governmental activities. It is among the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities in the world.

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The first permanent settlement in Iceland by Norsemen is believed to have been established at Reykjavík by Ingólfur Arnarson from Norway around AD 870; this is described in Landnámabók, or the Book of Settlement. Ingólfur Arnarson is said to have decided the location of his settlement using a traditional Norse method; he cast his high seat pillars (Öndvegissúlur) into the ocean when he saw the coastline, then settled where the pillars came to shore. Steam from hot springs in the region is said to have inspired Reykjavík’s name, which loosely translates to Smoke Cove (the city is sometimes referred to as Bay of Smoke or Smoky Bay in English language travel guides). The original name was Reykjarvík with an additional “r” that had vanished around 1800.

Reykjavík is not mentioned in any medieval sources except as being covered by farmland, but the 18th century saw the beginning of urban concentration. The Danish rulers of Iceland backed the idea of domestic industry in Iceland that would stimulate much-needed development on the island.  In 1752, the King of Denmark, Frederik V, donated the estate of Reykjavík to the Innréttingar Corporation; the name comes from the Danish language word indretninger, meaning institution. The leader of this movement was Skúli Magnússon (is). In the 1750s several houses were built to house the wool industry that was to be Reykjavík’s most important employer for a few decades and the original reason for its existence. Other crafts were also practised by the Innréttingar, such as fisheries, sulphur mining, agriculture, and shipbuilding.
The Danish Crown abolished monopoly trading in 1786 and granted six communities around the country an exclusive trading charter, Reykjavík was one of them and the only one to hold on to the charter permanently. The year 1786 is regarded as the date of the city’s founding; its 200th anniversary was celebrated in 1986. Trading rights were still limited to the subjects of the Danish Crown, and Danish traders continued to dominate trade in Iceland. Over the following decades, their business in Iceland expanded. After 1880, free trade was expanded to all nationalities and the influence of Icelandic merchants started to grow.

Icelandic nationalist sentiment gained influence in the 19th century and the idea of Icelandic independence became widespread. Reykjavík, as Iceland’s only city, was central to such ideas. Advocates of an independent Iceland realized that a strong Reykjavík was fundamental to that objective. All the important events in the history of the independence struggle were important to Reykjavík as well. In 1845 Alþingi, the general assembly formed in 930 AD, was re-established in Reykjavík; it had been suspended a few decades earlier when it was located at Þingvellir. At the time it functioned only as an advisory assembly, advising the King about Icelandic affairs. The location of Alþingi in Reykjavík effectively established the city as the capital of Iceland.

In 1874 Iceland was given a constitution; with it, Alþingi gained some limited legislative powers and in essence became the institution that it is today. The next step was to move most of the executive power to Iceland: Home Rule was granted in 1904 when the office of Minister For Iceland was established in Reykjavík. The biggest step towards an independent Iceland was taken on 1 December 1918 when Iceland became a sovereign country under the Crown of Denmark, the Kingdom of Iceland.

By the 1920s and 1930s most of the growing Icelandic fishing trawler fleet sailed from Reykjavík and salt-cod production was its main industry, but the Great Depression hit Reykjavík hard with unemployment and labour union struggles occurring that sometimes became violent.

On the morning of 10 May 1940, following the German occupation of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940, four British warships approached Reykjavík and anchored in the harbour. In a few hours, the allied occupation of Reykjavík was complete. There was no armed resistance, and taxi and truck drivers even assisted the invasion force, which initially had no motor vehicles. The Icelandic government had received many requests from the British government to consent to the occupation, but it always declined on the basis of the Neutrality Policy. For the remaining years of World War II, British and later American soldiers occupied camps in Reykjavík, and the number of foreign soldiers in Reykjavík became about the same as the local population of the city. The Royal Regiment of Canada (RREGTC) formed part of the garrison in Iceland during the early part of the war.

The economic effects of the occupation were positive for Reykjavík: the unemployment of the Depression years vanished and construction work began. The British built Reykjavík Airport, which is still in service today, mostly serving domestic flights. The Americans, meanwhile, built Keflavík Airport, situated 50 km (31 mi) west of Reykjavík, which would become Iceland’s primary international airport. In 1944, the Republic of Iceland was founded and a president, elected by the people, replaced the King; the office of the president was placed in Reykjavík.
In the post-war years the growth of Reykjavík accelerated. A mass exodus from the rural countryside began, largely due to improved technology in agriculture that reduced the need for manpower, and because of a population boom resulting from better living conditions in the country. A once primitive village was rapidly transformed into a modern city. Private cars became common and modern apartment complexes rose in the expanding suburbs. Much of Reykjavík lost its village feel. In 1972, Reykjavík hosted the world chess championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.

Reykjavík has in the last three decades become a significant player in the global community. The 1986 Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev underlined Reykjavík’s new-found international status. Deregulation in the financial sector and the computer revolution of the 1990s again transformed Reykjavík. The financial and IT sectors are now significant employers in the city. The city has fostered some world-famous talents in recent decades, such as Björk, Ólafur Arnalds and bands Múm, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men and Reykjavíkurdætur, poet Sjón and visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson.

Reykjavík is located in southwest Iceland. The Reykjavík area coastline is characterized by peninsulas, coves, straits, and islands.
During the Ice Age (up to 10,000 years ago) a large glacier covered parts of the city area, reaching as far out as Álftanes. Other parts of the city area were covered by sea water. In the warm periods and at the end of the Ice Age, some hills like Öskjuhlíð were islands. The former sea level is indicated by sediments (with clams) reaching (at Öskjuhlíð, for example) as far as 43 m (141 ft) above the current sea level. The hills of Öskjuhlíð and Skólavörðuholt appear to be the remains of former shield volcanoes which were active during the warm periods of the Ice