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Brattahlíð: Fragments of Greenland's Norse past

The history of Greenland is largely that of the Inuit peoples, as any resident or historian will readily tell you. However, for a few short centuries, the island also played host to the Norse.

The history of Greenland is largely that of the Inuit peoples, as any resident or historian will readily tell you. However, for a few short centuries, the island also played host to the Norse. Remnants of this period, which stretched between the end of the 10th century and sometime during the 16th, are still present in Greenland, and you can view them should your cruise travel take you nearby. There are two settlements, of which the most accessible and well known is Brattahlíð, which means "the steep slope."

How Brattahlíð came to be

The Vikings had long been aware of Greenland, but considered it too inhospitable to live there. However, in 982, Erik the Red found himself exiled from Iceland for three years - and he turned to the southern coast of Greenland to be his new home. There, he constructed Brattahlíð, which was his farm. When he was allowed to return to Iceland, he did so only to recruit more settlers for Greenland.

Though you may not ever have heard this in geography class, Greenland is considered part of the North American continent - therefore, Brattahlíð is the first North American location inhabited by Europeans. Tucked quietly away in the town of Qassiarsuk, Brattahlíð is actually a striking historical location with great significance for anyone interested in the European settlement of the new world. Because most of us live where we do as a direct result of that settlement, Brattahlíð ought to be of interest to nearly anyone coming from North America at the very least.

Notable events in Brattahlíð

Despite its modest size and its location tucked away at the head of the Tunulliarfik Fjord, Brattahlíð has seen some fascinating moments in history. Erik the Red's wife, Tjodhilde, is said to have been the motive force in the construction of the new world's first church, which was at Brattahlíð, as well as the reason her pagan husband became a Christian.

Perhaps even more groundbreaking was the journey of Leif Eriksson. He left for the new world from Brattahlíð nearly 500 years before Columbus would make his voyage - and landed, as most believe, in Newfoundland, Canada. Eriksson was also responsible for ensuring all Greenlanders converted to Christianity, as the order of Norway's King Olav Tryggvason mandated. At Brattahlíð, you can see a statue erected in 2000 to commemorate Eriksson's voyage to the new world. You can see the ruins of the Norse settlement at Brattahlíð today - you can also see a replica of the new world's first chapel and of a Viking longhouse.

Around the end of the 15th century, the Norse deserted Brattahlíð. Historians don't quite agree on what happened, but there are many possible causes. The climate at that time did change, creating a much colder Greenland that may have driven them away. Furthermore, the Inuit population began to expand and spread to the south of Greenland, which may have led to competition for resources and space that the Norse either lost or decided not to participate in.

What we do know is that Brattahlíð is even today a site of great historical interest - and one you can visit yourself.

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