Hvalsey Church Ruins

Sermersooq, Greenland

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.

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Founded: 14th century
Category: Ruins in Greenland

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4.6/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Crister Sahlén (3 years ago)
Very nice historic place. There is a information sign in front of the first ruin but it is not possible to read it anymore. Be sure to go with a guide or bring your own information of the layout of the ruins in order to enjoy your visit! If time allows, the bay in front of the ruins might offer possibilities for a short dip in the Greenlandic water!
david stott (4 years ago)
A beautiful place.
Birgitta Whitman (4 years ago)
The last wedding that is registered took place there in 1408.
Claudia R (5 years ago)
Beautiful place, surrounded by green hills and tall mountains. The old church is remarkably well preserved, considering that it's been built on the 900s. Walking around we see many other ruins, other buildings that thousand years ago made part of a great farming community.
Anique Zahid (6 years ago)
Never been here. But, would love to go there. This place has something. I can feel by seeing only the street view.
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