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Hvalsey Church, Greenland

Hvalsey Church, Greenland

Vikings in Greenland

The Vikings (also known as 'Norsemen') inhabited Greenland for more than 400 hundred years and created a tradition of farming which today has become a corner stone of everyday life in Southern Greenland.


There is a statue of Leif Ericsson in the small sheep farming settlement of Qassiarsuk in Southern Greenland. Leaning against a heavy battle axe he looks out over the Eric’s Fiord, named after his father, the famous viking Eric the Red, and Leif seems to keep watch over the community while at the same time uneasily gazing towards the horizon.

Maybe he is thinking of his family’s origins in Iceland, about his people moving there from the shores of Norway, before they travelled west and ended up as Arctic farmers in Southern Greenland during the end of the 9th century. Or could it be that his thoughts were leading further west, as it was Leif who in the year 1003 A.D. as the first European ever, set foot in North America, after having heard his countryman Bjarni describe a foreign coast west of Greenland.

Hvalsey Church Ruins

Hvalsey Church (Hvalsø Kirke) is the ruins of an old Norse church, which is situated in the fjord of Hvalsey (Qaqortukulooq). The architecture seems very related to similar Norse buildings from the 14th century. The church is in the region which the Norse namedEystribygð, the Eastern Settlement, when the Vikings settled in Greenland in around 985. There are burials under the walls of this church from earlier phases of use but older churches have not been identified at this site. The Hvalsey church is mentioned in several late medieval documents as one of the 10-14 parish churches in the Eastern Settlement. The church was still in use in 1408.

The church ruin is the best preserved building from the Norse period, and is remarkably well built from ashlar stone, which is the reason why it survives. The Icelandic churches from the same period are all gone, because they were mostly built from timber or grass turf.

The stones are carefully laid and fitted. Some of the stones weighs between 4 and 5 tonnes, and some even more. Mortar was also used, but it is not known if it was used between the stones or only as plaster on the outside walls. The mortar was made from crushed shells so the church would have been white when built. Qaqortoq means 'the white place', and the modern town of that name at the mouth of the fjord could have got its name by association with the church.

The church measures 16 by 8 metres, and the walls are around 1.5 metres thick. The window openings are wider on the inside a detail not found inIcelandic churches, but well known in early churches in Britain which may have been the source of this building type. The gables stand about 5 to 6 metres (16 to 20 ft) tall, and were originally about 2 metres taller. The long walls are around 4 metres tall, and again have been taller. The roof was probably been made of timber and covered in grass turf. The foundation on which the church is built is made of the same material as the church itself, but the architect has failed to remove the grass turf. This is one of the main reasons that the church has sunk unevenly, so the walls no longer stand completely straight. A restoration of the church has been done, but there has been no attempt at rebuilding, only the prevention of further decay. The government of Greenland has applied to have the church approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Hvalsey features in the last document relating to the Norse settlements in Greenland. It is a record of the wedding on 16 September 1408 of the Icelanders Thorsteinn Olafsson and Sigridr Bjornsdottir in the Church of Hvalsey. After this, contact was lost with Norse Greenland, although the Eastern Settlement is believed to have persisted down to the 1450s if not longer. 315 years later, in 1723, Hans Egede was the first European to see the place again when he travelled south trying to find any surviving Norse. He described the church ruin in Hvalsey and made a perfunctory excavation. According to his description, the ruins were in a similar condition at that time as they are today.

Hvalsey Church, Greenland - History

The Church hosted the wedding of Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdóttir on either 14 or 16 September 1408. The wedding was mentioned in letters from a priest at Garðar and by several Icelanders, and is the last written record of the Greenlandic Norse. The married couple later settled in Olafsson's native Iceland.

In the Eskimo tradition, there is a legend about Hvalsey. According this legend, there was open war between the Norse chief Ungortoq and the Eskimo leader K'aissape. The Eskimos made a massive attack on Hvalsey and burned down the Norse inside their houses, but Ungortoq escaped with his family. K'aissape conquered him after a long pursuit, which ended near Kap Farvel. However, according to archaeological studies, there is no sign of a conflagration.

The site is now part of a sheep farm. Hvalsey is located on a narrow strip of land at the head of a fjord , with the church situated around 70 metres from the water. The church is located in a classic Greenlandic Norse farmstead, with several additional adjacent buildings. The farmstead included a large building approximately 1,300m² in size. It had eleven rooms, combining living quarters, an 8 by 5 metre banqueting hall and livestock pens. There were other livestock pens away from the main building, a horse enclosure for visitors to keep their horses, a storage building further up the hill and a warehouse at the edge of the water.

The dwelling was built on the top of an earlier building that dates back to the time of Erik the Red, and may have been Thorkell Farserk's home. Around 16 metres long and 8 metres wide, the church was constructed in the Anglo-Norwegian style of the early 13th century. The church held around 30–35 people, and was surrounded by a dyke marking the limits of the cemetery.

It was built from granite fieldstones. The stones are carefully laid and fitted. Some of the stones weigh between 4 and 5 tonnes, and some even more. Mortar was also used, but it is not known if it was used between the stones or only as plaster on the outside walls. The mortar was made from crushed shells so the church would have been white when built. Qaqortoq means "the white place", and the modern town of that name at the mouth of the fjord could have got its name by association with the church.

The walls are approximately 1.5 metres thick. It is thought that it had a turf -covered wooden roof. All doors and windows are constructed using lintels , except for one window in the eastern gable, which had an arch. The window openings are wider on the inside a detail not found in Icelandic churches , but well known in early churches in Britain which may have been the source of this building type.

Thanks to the good build quality Hvalsey Church has persisted the elements better than other Norse structures in Greenland. Nevertheless, it has partly collapsed, mainly due to the fact that it was built over a graveyard. Graves were not removed before the construction and this caused the sinking of foundation.

History of Greenland

The Inuit (Eskimo) are believed to have crossed to northwest Greenland from North America, using the islands of the Canadian Arctic as stepping stones, in a series of migrations that stretched from at least 2500 bce to the early 2nd millennium ce . Each wave of migration represented different Inuit cultures. Several distinct cultures are known, including those classified as Independence I (c. 2500–1800 bce ), Saqqaq (c. 2300–900 bce ), Independence II (c. 1200–700 bce ), Dorset I (c. 600 bce –100 ce ), and Dorset II (c. 700–1200). The most recent arrival was the Thule culture (c. 1100), from which the Inugsuk culture developed during the 12th and 13th centuries.

In 982 the Norwegian Erik the Red, who had been banished from Iceland for manslaughter, settled on the island today known as Greenland. Returning to Iceland about 985, he described the merits of the newly discovered land, which he called Greenland, and in 986 he organized an expedition to the island that resulted in the development of two main settlements: the East Settlement, near present-day Qaqortoq (Julianehåb), and the West Settlement, near present-day Nuuk (Godthåb). These settlements may have reached a population of 3,000–6,000 on about 280 farms, suggesting that temperatures at that time may have been as warm or warmer than they are today. Christianity arrived in the 11th century by way of Erik’s son Leif Eriksson, who had just returned from the recently Christianized Norway. A bishop’s seat was established in Greenland in 1126.

Beginning sometime in the 13th century, the Norse (Scandinavian) settlers began to interact with the expanding Inuit Thule culture that had appeared in northern Greenland about 1100. But in the 14th century the Norse settlements declined, perhaps as a result of a cooling in Greenland’s climate. In the 15th century they ceased to be inhabited.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch and English whalers frequently traveled in the seas around Greenland, and occasionally they interacted with the local population. However, no further attempt at colonization was made until 1721, when Hans Egede, with the permission of the united kingdom of Denmark-Norway, founded a trading company and a Lutheran mission near present-day Nuuk, thus marking the real beginning of Greenland’s colonial era. In 1776 the Danish government assumed a full monopoly of trade with Greenland, and the Greenland coast was closed to foreign access it was not reopened until 1950. During this period Denmark tried gradually to acclimatize the Greenlanders to the outside world without exposing them to the danger of economic exploitation.

Greenland fell under the protection of the United States during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II and was returned to Denmark in 1945. Following the war, Denmark responded to Greenlanders’ complaints over its administration of the island. The monopoly of the Royal Greenland Trading Company was abolished in 1951, and, after Greenland became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953, reforms were undertaken to improve the local economy, transportation systems, and the educational system. Denmark granted home rule to the island on May 1, 1979.

At the start of the 21st century, there was growing support in Greenland for greater control of its foreign affairs. This arose partly in response to a 2004 agreement allowing the United States to upgrade its missile defense system at Thule Air Base. Inuit who had been forcibly removed from the area surrounding the base in the 1950s sued for the right to return, airing their grievances at the European Court of Human Rights. Some Greenlanders were wary of continued U.S. involvement because the United States had stored nuclear bombs on the island during the Cold War without Greenland’s knowledge, despite a Danish ban on such weapons additionally, in 1968 a U.S. military aircraft carrying four hydrogen bombs had crashed near Thule.

There were calls for an independent Greenland, and parties campaigning for greater autonomy scored electoral victories in the first decade of the 21st century. In November 2008 more than 75 percent of Greenlanders who voted approved a nonbinding referendum calling for greater autonomy. The proposal, which was formulated by legislators in both Greenland and Denmark, had the tacit approval of the Danish government even before the referendum was held. It would increase the responsibilities of Greenland’s government in foreign affairs, immigration, and justice, among other areas, while also granting it the rights to the potentially lucrative hydrocarbon and mineral resources that have become increasingly accessible as a result of the island’s melting ice cap. It was widely believed that this potential revenue would free Greenland from its economic dependence on Denmark, which many saw as the final stumbling block to complete independence. Snap elections held in June 2009 saw Siumut removed from power for the first time since home rule was granted in 1979. The opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit captured more than 40 percent of the vote, and party leader Kuupik Kleist worked quickly to form a coalition government prior to the expansion of home rule later that month.

In elections in 2013 Siumut returned to power at the head of a coalition presided over by Greenland’s first female prime minister, Aleqa Hammond, whose government placed a moratorium on granting licences for oil exploration and began requiring royalty payments from foreign concerns before they began mining. (Kleist’s government had planned to allow foreign firms to defer payments until some startup costs could be recouped.) Hammond’s government also announced its willingness to allow the mining of some radioactive minerals, notably uranium, which had previously been prohibited.

In October 2014, with her government having narrowly escaped a vote of no confidence, Hammond temporarily stepped down amid accusations of having misused government funds and was replaced by Kim Kielsen. When the parliamentary opposition engineered a snap election at the end of November, Kielsen led Siumut to the polls, where it captured about 34 percent of the vote, compared with about 33 percent for the chief opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA). Both parties were awarded 11 of the 31 legislative seats, but Kielsen arranged a new governing coalition with two smaller partners, the Demokratiit party (four seats) and the Atassut Party (two seats).

Hvalsey Church in Greenland: One of the buildings still recognizable of a classic Greenland Norse farmstead

The ruins of the Hvalsey Church are located in the abandoned Greenlandic Norse speaking settlements of Hvalsey in the southern part of Greenland. The site on which the church was erected is situated on a narrow piece of land facing a fjord, near the present-day small town of Qaqortoq (formerly known as Julianehab) in the Kujalleq municipality.

The remains of the medieval church are located approximately 12 miles northeast of the center of Qaqortoq, which is the largest town in southern Greenland, with more than 3000 inhabitants.

Hvalsey Church.Author: Number 57 CC0

In this area can be found the best preserved and largest site of Norse ruins. Now only the Hvalsey Church is still visible and recognizable. This church is one of the first Christian (Catholic) churches on the continent of North America.

The church’s arch window. Author: Number 57 CC0

The land of Southern Greenland was colonized by Norse settlers from Scandinavia at the end of the 10th century. They were attracted by the fertile lands and fjords of the region and the area has become their new home.

Southern aspect of the church. Author: Number 57 CC0

According to Nordic medieval documents known as sages, the territory around Hvalsey belonged to Thorkrell Farserk, who was cousin or uncle of Erik the Red. Christianity reached Greenland at the beginning of the 11th century and very soon churches were built around the Norse farms.

Historians and archaeologists believe that Hvalsey Church was built in the early years of 14th century. The new discoveries show that Hvalsey Church was not the first church in the area. In various late medieval documents, it is written that Hvalsey Church is one of the 10- 14 parish churches in the Eastern Settlement.

The Farmstead buildings. Author: Number 57 CC0

The church was last used at the wedding of Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdottir in September 1408. This event was mentioned in letters by a priest and by several Icelanders. This is the last written record of the Greenlandic Norse, after this date, there are no signs of the Greenlandic Norse in the sages or other medieval documents. It is believed that at this time (at the beginning of the 15th century) the settlement was completely abandoned.

There are debates among historians about the reasons why this happened. Some believe that the harsh climate forced the inhabitants to leave the place and others that the destructive war with the Inuit people was the main reason why this location became empty and uninhabited. Today the site is a part of a sheep farm.

The banquet hall. Author: Number 57 CC0

It is believed that at its highest peak the Hvalsey Parish area had 15 buildings. The church was one of them, but there were several other buildings. The location was characteristic classic Greenland Norse farmstead. The farmstead had a large farmhouse with eleven rooms. This building also had a banquet hall and livestock pens and there were other smaller residential homes too. Archaeologists believe that one of them was the home of the priest.

Other livestock pens and a horse enclosure for guests to keep their horses were erected away from the main building. There was a storehouse up on the nearby hill and another storehouse at the edge of the water but sadly most signs of this structures have disappeared.

Nearby stables. Author: Number 57 CC0

But the church still has all of its four walls. The walls are between 15 and 20 feet high, built of stone in the Anglo-Norwegian architectonic style of the early 13th century. Some of the stones or we should say, boulders, weigh more than 5 tonnes. The stones are carefully placed and fitted. The church is roofless because the roof was wooden and it disappeared through the centuries, it has three entrances and one arched window – the church held more or less 35 people.

The horse pen. Author: Number 57 CC0

Thanks to the excellent build quality Hvalsey Church has resisted the time and the climate conditions better than other Norse structures in Greenland. Parts of the building have collapsed, mostly because that it was built over a graveyard and this caused the sinking of the foundation. But still, the Hvalsey church is one of the best preserved Greenlandic Norse structures.

6 Largest And Best-Preserved Pre-Columbus Building Remains In The Americas

Greenland is also home to the Hvalsey Church, one of the first Christian churches in North America. There were 10󈝺 churches built in Greenland within a couple of centuries of the first settlers&rsquo arrival. The Hvalsey Church, constructed in the early 14th century, is currently the largest and best-preserved pre-Columbian European building in the Americas.

The church used to be an impressive building with two stone halls and 14 nearby stone houses. It seems like several skilled masons were brought to the Hvalsey Fjord to create this masterpiece. Only the best materials were chosen and worked with great precision. The biggest granite pieces used in the construction are heavier than five tons.

Some structural details, such as wider inner than outer window openings, are more characteristic of early churches in Britain. That has led experts to believe that some of the construction may have been managed by Scottish masons rather than Icelandic ones.

However, one serious mistake was made. The church was built on a graveyard without prior removal of graves, which later made the foundation sink and the walls collapse. Today, the abandoned Hvalsey serves as a grazing area for sheep. The church ruins were conserved in 1999 to prevent further foundation sinkage. [5]


The church house, which was first erected in the early 12th century, might have been built by Scots-Norse stonemasons as similar structures are found in Norway and Orkney. The church might have been maintained due to the site's royal ownership.

The church house was exceptionally well built from carefully chosen stones that in some cases weigh in excess of five tons. Its walls, which are up to 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) thick, measure 16 metres (52 ft) by 8 metres (26 ft) on the outside. The gables rise 5 metres (16 ft) to 6 metres (20 ft) from the floor and may have risen 2m higher when first constructed. Side walls, which would have been higher when new, now stand 4 metres (13 ft). The building was plastered with ground mussel shells and would have been white when in use and was roofed with timber and turf.

A 1408 wedding at the site's church is the last documented event to occur during the Norse settlement of Greenland. Two years later the Icelandic newlyweds, ship's captain Þorsteinn Ólafsson and Sigríður Björnsdóttir, returned to Norway, before sailing to Iceland and settling on the bride's family farm at Akrar, north Iceland, in 1413. The details were recorded in letters between papal dignitaries in Iceland and the Vatican.

Archaeological evidence shows that over the next hundred years the last Norse settlements in Greenland slowly died out. It was not until 1721 that a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by Danish missionary Hans Egede discovered that the Norse colonies in Southern Greenland had disappeared.

For History Lovers

Visiting the church ruins requires a 20 minute boat ride from Qaqortoq. The ride can be chilly but it is beautiful. If you go early in the morning, the water can be smooth as glass with a wonderful reflective quality. The ruins themselves consist mostly of a church and a hall. The church is rather impressive with high walls, doors, and windows. The hall is also impressive though slightly less so. There are scattered remains of corrals, storage houses, homes. Most don't mean much to the casual tourist but the two main structures suffice. The ruins give you a reasonable idea of what it might have been like in Viking times. Try to go when no one else is there and you'll understand what isolation really means.

NOTE: You may want to bring a mosquito head net with you as the mosquitos can be fierce.

The ruins are interesting if you are "into" that sort of thing. It is certainly not worth a trip to Greenland just to see these.

Very beautiful spot about a 30 minute boat ride from the town. You not only can visit the ruins but the area around is wonderful for walking. No guide, but you can get lots of information before you go. The boat driver left us off at the church and I had plenty of time for a visit.

A trip to Hvalsey church is well worth the effort. The ruin itself may not be as impressive as buildings of similar age in Europe, but this is more than made up for by its stunning location at the end of a fjord. Its a ruin that really makes you realise how hardy the Vikings must have been to exist in such a remote place and harsh environment.

Few buildings remain from the Viking area so the ruins of Hvalsey Church and its associated farmstead are important from a historical perspective. To reach Hvalsey requires a boat trip of about 30 minutes from Qaqortoq. I was fortunate enough to be one of a party of only 4 people who were transported there in a small boat by a charming Greenlandic captain named Karl. It was early August 2015 and the weather unusually warm so it was a pleasant trip. The ruins stand in rocky meadows strewn with wildflowers in a quiet bay surrounded by rugged cliffs, and on the sunny day that we were there it was quite breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. Only birdsong and the occasional bleating of grazing sheep broke the silence. The terrain, though, is rough and requires care when walking - one of our party unfortunately stumbled and broke her ankle. (Hiking boots are recommended.) Efforts are being made to restore the ruined buildings using original materials and methods and we witnessed two archaeologists at work there. If you visit Qaqortoq this trip is definitely worth the small cost involved.

Comfort accommodations offer access to private facilities (shower and toilet). This type of lodges belongs to the 3-star hotel category. Most of these properties have an in-house restaurant. This section offers an upgrade in comfort and service compared to the budget category. Breakfast is included.

Day 1 Arrival in South Greenland -->

Flight from Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq

Flights to Narsarsuaq depart from Reykjavík airport. Flight time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Please check in for your flight at least 90 minutes earlier to your flight time to avoid queues and so that the airline can keep on schedule. Please have all required documentation at hand before checking in, your confirmation number and identification. For flights that belong to the Schengen Region, passengers can show their passport or drivers license. For flights outside Schengen only a passport is valid. Please note that Credit and Debit Cards are not a valid ID.

At the airport is a cafeteria which sells drinks, snacks and other refreshments. When traveling internationally from Reykjavík airport there is a duty free store.


Narsarsuaq is a significant location regarding the Greenland's history, as the name Greenland was given here. The vikings settled here where it is green with an arctic forest. Here you can visit Brattahlid, the settlement of Erik the Red, and the first Christian Chuch in North America was erected. Hiking is a very popular activity as well.


Qaqortoq is the largest town of South Greenland. There are 3229 inhabitants. The town has many things to offer, art, culture, hot springs, kayaking, and Norse history.

Watch the video: Qassiarsuk, Greenland - 90th anniversary celebration (January 2022).