05 January 2008


Bessastaðir. In the two years I was serving in Iceland I never once made it out to Bessastaðir to visit. Bessastaðir is the residence of the President of Iceland while he or she is in office. When I was there in 1984 to 86 the current president was Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Vigdís was the world's first popularly-elected woman president and the people loved her. I remember hearing that she spoke English, Swedish and a few other languages fluently. I took this first picture of Bessastaðir when I went back in 2004. The long glass windows in the little arboretum on the right hand side of the main residence at that time had large green leaves from all kinds of plants pressed up against them. It must be quite a nice place to relax and mentally remove yourself from the harsh conditions that are often right on the other side of the windows.

I thought back on why I never visited the place while a missionary. No buses went out that way plus there isn't a lot to do there once you've arrived except go into the little church which is at the front of the building. We would have had to have a member drive us out if we were to get there at all. So we never went.

When we pulled up in our rental car in 2004 in September, there wasn't a soul to be seen except for two workers who were replacing some of the paving blocks in one of the walkways by the church. We didn't know if the church was open or not. The workers didn't even look in our direction. We walked up to the church door and pulled, and sure enough, it was open. We went in and saw the most beautiful stained-glass windows that I have ever seen. Okay, I haven't seen many, but these were cool. They depicted famous people and events in the settling of Iceland. I took these two pictures during this trip. I half expected a priest to be in the building, but most of the historic church buildings in Iceland do not have priests in them day-to-day. The newer ones, like Hallgrímskirkja and Háteigskirkja have priests, but that is because the buildings are in the middle of Reykjavík with people who attend on occasion.

I learned a little of the history of Bessastaðir recently. The first time that it is mentioned in Icelandic writings was by Snorri Sturluson sometime between 1200 A.D and 1241 A.D. He owned it at the time, but there is no mention of who built it. Snorri was a writer, historian and poet. He was part of the most influential family of the day (the "Sturlung" age was named after his family), but when he and his family fell from power, Bessastaðir was then confiscated by the king of Norway who used it to house his chief representative until the 17oo's. That's about 500 years worth of time! For 40 years or so in the early 1800's it was used as the sight for the most advanced school in the country, which was a Latin school.

Finally in 1941 it became the residence of the Icelandic head of state. In 1944 when Iceland won its independence from Denmark, Sveinn Björnsson became the first president of Iceland and made Bessastaðir his formal residence (he had been the head of state since 1941 in case you were wondering). The presidents who lived there from 1944 on have been these:

Sveinn Björnsson--1944-1952
Ásgeir Ásgeirsson--1952-1968
Kristján Eldjárn--1968-1980
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir--1980-1996
Ólafur Grímsson--1996-present

I saw Vigdís in the airport during this 2004 trip. She had no security with her, no group of followers. Just the beloved past-president of a small country heading somewhere. I almost stopped her and talked to her, but didn't want to seem like a groupie...

What we see today as the buildings at Bessastaðir were not the same as the ones that existed in the 1300's, for example. The oldest part of the current presidential residence was built in 1763, but there have been loads of changes since then. The current church was built sometime between 1780 and 1823, as the U.S. was struggling to become an independent country. The stones of the walls are about three feet thick and made out of cut stones with lime mortar.

As you stand in the doorway of the church and look out to the left you see the view in this last picture. Remote, cold. Birds on the water, wind and snow. A quiet place removed from the beaten track holding as much of a place in the history of Iceland as any other place. When visiting with President Grímsson on a visit a few years ago, President Gordon B. Hinckley said of Bessastaðir that he liked it so much that he might like to retire there someday. President Grímsson thought that was nice of him to say. Then when president Hinckley left he was told that Mormon prophets don't retire. They die on the job. He told us that in a meeting at BYU two years ago when we hosted him on campus. Everyone thought that that sounded exactly like something President Hinckley would say.

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