Hofsós, Iceland | C.1240

Photo Credit: Zach Whiteside

One glance at Grafarkirkja and you may expect to see a band of Hobbits scuttling about its lush, green landscape. But don’t hold your breath for Gandalf arriving with a carriage of fireworks; there’s nothing fictional about Grafarkirkja. Instead, is a very real turf church in Iceland’s northern village of Hofsós. In fact, Grafarkirkja is the oldest turf church in the country.

Early documentation dates it back to 1240, but the church that stands today was constructed during the 17th century. It’s believed to have been rebuilt by Guðmundur Guðmundsson, a renowned wood carver whose work can still be found on site—namely, its weathervane, featuring the numbers 167. While turf churches (and residences) were common for Icelanders at the time, Guðmundsson’s intricate carvings lend Grafarkirkja its unique, sustained beauty.

Even so, shortly after its construction the church succumbed to the rule of a distant monarch, who either wasn’t aware or disregarded its historical legacy and significance. In 1775, under the rule of the King of Denmark, the church was deconsecrated by royal order and turned into a tool shed for farmers. Miraculously, the turf church remained intact for centuries. When the National Museum of Iceland reclaimed possession in 1950, the church was entirely restored to its original splendor, using timber and turf.

Much like the Hobbits of Middle Earth, the church triumphed over an adversary committed to transforming its natural, earthen home into a place for tools and machinery. Today, Grafarkirkja—one of the six remaining turf churches in Iceland—is undergoing preservation to continue its next chapter, so that generations to come can revel in the allure of its history and the storied land on which it sits.

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