Geography Area: 102,845 sq. km. (39, 709 sq. miles); about twice the size ofIreland.Cities: Capital-- Reykjavik. Other towns -Kopavogur, Hafnarfjordur, Akureyri.Terrain: Rugged.Climate: Maritime temperate.Highest elevation: Vatnajokull Glacier, at 2,119 meters (6,952 ft.).PeopleNationality: Noun--Icelander(s). Adjective--Icelandic.Population: 300,000 +Ethnic group: Homogenous mixture of descendants of Norwegians and Celts.Religion: Evangelical Lutheran, 91%.Language: Icelandic.Education: Compulsory up to age 16. Attendance--99%. Literacy--99.9%.Health: Infant mortality rate--6/1,000. Life expectancy--men 76.3 yrs., women 80.8 yrs.National holiday: June 17, anniversary of the establishment of the republic.Flag: Red cross edged in white on a blue field.
GEOGRAPHYIceland is a volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean east of Greenlandand immediately south of the Arctic Circle. It lies about 4,200 kilometers(2,600 mi.) from New York and 830 kilometers (520 mi.) from Scotland.About 79% of Iceland's land area, which is of recent volcanic origin,consists of glaciers, lakes, a mountainous lava desert (highest elevation2,000 meters--6,590 ft. --above sea level), and other wasteland. Twentypercent of the land is used for grazing, and 1% is cultivated. The inhabitedareas are on the coast, particularly in the southwest.Because of the Gulf Stream's moderating influence, the climate ischaracterized by damp, cool summers and relatively mild but windy winters.In Reykjavik, the average temperature is 11°C (52°F) in July and -1°C (30°F)in January.PEOPLEMost Icelanders are descendants of Norwegian settlers and Celts from theBritish Isles, and the population is remarkably homogeneous. According toIcelandic Government statistics, 99% of the nation's inhabitants live inurban areas (localities with populations greater then 200) and 60% live inReykjavik and the surrounding area. Of the Nordic languages, the Icelandiclanguage is closest to the Old Norse language and has remained relativelyunchanged since the 12th century.About 91% of the population belong to the state church, the EvangelicalLutheran Church, or other Lutheran Churches. However, Iceland has completereligious liberty, and other Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations arepresent.Most Icelandic surnames are based on patronymy, or the adoption of thefather's first given name. For example, Magnus and Anna, children of a mannamed Petur, would hold the surname Petursson and Petursdottir,respectively. Magnus' children, in turn, would inherit the surnameMagnusson, while Anna's children would claim their father's first given nameas their surname. Women normally maintain their original surnames aftermarriage. This system of surnames is required by law, except for thedescendants of those who had acquired family names before 1913. MostIcelanders, while reserved by nature, rarely call each other by theirsurnames, and even phone directories are based on first names. Because ofits small size and relative homogeneity, Iceland holds all thecharacteristics of a very close-knit society.Cultural AchievementsThe Sagas, almost all written between 1180-1300 A.D., remain Iceland's bestknown literary accomplishment, and they have no surviving counterpartanywhere in the Nordic world. Based on Norwegian and Icelandic histories andgenealogies, the Sagas present views of Nordic life and times up to 1100A.D. The Saga writers sought to record their heroes' great achievements andto glorify the virtues of courage, pride, and honor, focusing in the laterSagas on early Icelandic settlers.Unlike its literature, Iceland's fine arts did not flourish until the 19thcentury because the population was small and scattered. Iceland's mostfamous painters are Asgrimur Jonsson, Jon Stefansson, and Johannes Kjarval,all of whom worked during the first half of the 20th century. The best-knownmodern sculptor, Asmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982), drew his inspiration fromIcelandic folklore and the Sagas for many of his works.The best known Icelandic writer in this century is the Nobel Prize winnerHalldor Laxness. The literacy rate is 100%, and literature and poetry are apassion with the population. Per capita publication of books and magazinesis the highest in the world. In a population of 265,000 people, 1993 datashow five daily newspapers, 78 other newspapers, and 629 periodicals.Kristjan Johannsson is Iceland's most famous opera singer, while pop singerBjork is probably its best known artist in this century.HISTORYIceland was settled in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, principally bypeople of Norse origin. In 930 A.D., the ruling chiefs established arepublican constitution and an assembly called the Althingi--the oldestparliament in the world. Iceland remained independent until 1262, when itentered into a treaty which established a union with the Norwegian monarchy.It passed to Denmark in the late 14th century when Norway and Denmark wereunited under the Danish crown.In the early 19th century, national consciousness revived in Iceland. TheAlthingi had been abolished in 1800 but was reestablished in 1843 as aconsultative assembly. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland home rule, whichagain was extended in 1904. The constitution, written in 1874, was revisedin 1903, and a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in Reykjavik, wasmade responsible to the Althingi. The Act of Union, a 1918 agreement withDenmark, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state united with Denmarkunder a common king. Iceland established its own flag and asked that Denmarkrepresent its foreign affairs and defense interests.German occupation of Denmark in 1940 severed communications between Icelandand Denmark. In May 1940, British military forces occupied Iceland. In July1941, responsibility for Iceland's defense passed to the United States undera U.S. - Icelandic defense agreement. Following a plebiscite, Icelandformally became an independent republic on June 17, 1944.In October 1946, the Icelandic and U.S. Governments agreed to terminate U.S.responsibility for the defense of Iceland, but the United States retainedcertain rights at Keflavik. Iceland became a charter member of the NorthAtlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. After the outbreak ofhostilities in Korea in 1950, and pursuant to the request of NATO militaryauthorities, the United States and Iceland agreed that the United Statesshould again be responsible for Iceland's defense. This agreement, signed onMay 5, 1951, is the authority for U.S. military presence in Iceland. Icelandis the only NATO country with no military forces.GOVERNMENTThe president, elected to a 4-year term, has limited powers. The primeminister and cabinet exercise most executive functions. The Althingi iscomposed of 63 members, elected every 4 years unless it is dissolved sooner.Suffrage for presidential and parliamentary elections is universal, andmembers of the Althingi are elected on the basis of proportionalrepresentation from eight constituencies. The judiciary consists of theSupreme Court, district courts, and various special courts. The constitution protects the judiciary from infringement by the other two branches.