True Lithuania

Lithuania for different faiths

Lithuania has been always famous for religious tolerance. One may see truly impressive sights of the largest faiths (attracting thousands of pilgrims) and cute remote houses of worship of the smaller ones, which are impressive to have survived the centuries.

*Christian sites in Lithuania. For pilgrims and non-believers alike as many of these sights are also atmospheric architectural wonders.

*Pagan Lithuania. 10 places to feel that Lithuania was the Europe's final pagan state.

*Muslim Lithuania. Wooden village mosques built centuries ago.

*Jewish Lithuania. Synagogues and homes of this craftsmen community.

*Protestant Lithuania. While Catholic faith eventually (re)conquered Lithuanian hearts Protestantism still left much heritage.

*The most iconic minorities. Both ethnic and religious.

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Top 10 Christian locations and activities

Even though Lithuania was the last European country to abandon paganism in 14th-15th centuries, since that time it has found a true devotion to Christ. To enjoy most of these places you don't have to be a pilgrim or even a Christian as many of them are architectural marvels or extremely atmospheric.

1.Listen to crosses chiming in the wind at the Hill of Crosses, a unique-in-the-world place where millions of Lithuanians erected millions of these Christian symbols defying the Russian Imperial and Soviet atheist bans.

2.Immerse yourself inbetween the 2000 "life as a theater" statuettes at the white baroque interior of Saint Peter and Paul church in Antakalnis, Vilnius, easily the prettiest in Lithuania.

3.Pay homage to Virgin Mary at Šiluva, where the Europe's first church-recognised Maryan vision took place in 1608. Šiluva is the heart of Christian Lithuania drawing processions each September 8th-16th festival to its massive square, old basilica, and interwar obelisk-like chapel.

4.Visit Pažaislis monastery, the Northern Europe's "pearl of the Baroque" in Kaunas.

5.Witness the miraculous original Divine Mercy painting in a dedicated Vilnius Old Town church. Painted based on nun's Faustina Kowalska's vivid visions (now she's a Saint) the respect for the painting quickly spread with World War 2 soldiers carrying its copies. Today such copies hang in Catholic and Anglican churches all over the world but the original is still held here in Vilnius, having miraculously survived Soviet destruction attempts. The Divine Mercy is by far the most popular idea that originated in Lithuania.

6.Kneel at the Aušros vartų street to pray for the famous 1600s Virgin Mary painting hanging on the last remaining Vilnius Old Town gates. While the years of Soviet atheism diluted the tradition, pre-WW2 images and videos show masses of people praying there. You'll be less out of place at the annual festival (November 10th-17th). Like the Divine Mercy, this Virgin Mary is being venerated far away with some churches in America dedicated to Our Lady of Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno.

7.Admire the flamboyant facade of Vilnius Saint Ann church which Napoleon is said to have wanted to dismantle and move to Paris.

8.See the romantically dilapidated frescoes of Tytuvėnai monastery cloister, another of the Lithuania's old monasteries that may have had a hard time under Soviet closure but now are definitely a tourist attraction.

9.Hike the arduous 7 km long forested recreation of the Christ's original route to Golgotha at Vilnius Calvary. The praying stations have been rebuilt after Soviet implosion and major religious festivals take place in May 3rd, September 14th and during Pentecost.

10.Visit Žemaičių Kalvarija - the Western Lithuania's main Christian center - at its annual festival (July 2nd-12th) to walk around wooden hill chapels that dot the village and listen to the unique local carols known as "the hills".

Map of the top 10 Christian locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Top 10 Pagan places & activities

Lithuania was the final European pagan great power. It has converted to Christianity only in the 14th-15th centuries. The remnants of paganism are still important in Lithuanian culture and may interest both a prehistory/mythology buff as well as a neo-pagan or Wiccan.

The pagan locations/activities in Lithuania generally fall into four broad categories: pagan practices adopted by the mainstream culture, pre-Christian locations, modern pagan-inspired artworks and the neo-pagan places. Here are 10 ideas on what to see:

1.Hike at the UNESCO-inscribed Kernavė hills where the wooden castles of Europe's final pagan capital city once stood (14th century). While everything was razed by crusading knights in 1365, a modern museum offers a great selection of period art and jewelry as well as reconstructions of the city.

2.Walk alongside wooden sculptures of Lithuanian pagan gods in Naisiai village near Šiauliai. Commissioned by a local enthusiast businessman this Museum of Baltic Gods has each of the gods reimagined by artists. The altar hill at the end is the most impressive.

3.Make a detour to the Samogitian pagan shrine in Šventoji seaside resort. This hill crowned by wooden posts representing various gods is both a historical reconstruction and an active shrine of the neo-pagans, who are the fastest-growing religious community of Lithuania (currently 0,2% of the population).

4.Go 2 km beyond the official borders of Lithuania to Punsk area (Poland), where a local Lithuanian enthusiast constructed a powerful reimagination of a pre-Christian Baltic village (known as the Prussian-Yotvingian settlement).

5.Be surprised by the Devils museum in Kaunas New Town that displays a collection of folk art devil statuettes. The "devils" here however are largely pagan-inspired evil-yet-stupid smallish creatures rather than the Christian omnipotent evil.

6.Visit the park near Vilnius Cathedral on a solstice to witness a biannual pagan-inspired fire event. It is believed that the valley where Vilnius Cathedral now stands used to serve as an important pagan center and a temple to the leading god Perkūnas (Thunder).

7.Go to the reconstructed pre-Christian observatory (a circle of wooden poles) in Kulionys village, Aukštaitija. It serves as a location for the Jorė pagan holiday, taking place in the end of April. These festivities of the "first Spring greenery" have been re-initiated by neo-pagans after having largely died out, making this a religious rather than cultural celebration.

8.Celebrate Užgavėnės (Mardi gras) in Lithuania (7 weeks before Catholic Easter) to witness local pagan-influenced traditions of masked singing and burning Morė, an effigy of Winter. It is celebrated in the city downtowns yet the Rumšiškės Museum of Folk Customs and Plateliai events are among the most famous.

9.Celebrate Rasos together with Lithuanians. This midsummer (June 23rd-24th) public holiday is now also known as Joninės (St. John's day) but much of what happens during the shortest annual night is of pagan origin, including the bonfire burning.

10.Drive (or take a bus) to Anykščiai, one of the probable locations of the original Lithuanian capital of King Mindaugas. The Šeimyniškėliai hill may have been crowned by his castle, and a reimagination of a wooden tower is built nearby. Mindaugas actually converted into Christianity but the nation reverted to pagan faith after his death (1263).

Map of the top 10 Pagan locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Top 10 Muslim (Tatar) Sights in Lithuania

Lithuania has the Northern Europe's oldest Muslim community. Descending from Turkic Tatar soldiers (that were invited from Lithuanian dependencies at the Black Sea shores to defend Lithuania-proper) it left much heritage, such as the unique wooden mosques that blend into Lithuanian countryside. While much was destroyed under the 20th-century tribulations (only 4 mosques remain out of 25 that existed 100 years ago), a person interested in Islamic heritage will still find what to see.

Take note that mosques are generally locked outside of Friday prayers so you'd need to arrange a visit by calling a caretaker.

1.Arrange a visit inside Raižiai Mosque, where Lithuania's oldest elaborate minbar (1686) stands. The wooden Mosque with a rooftop minaret itself dates to 1889 and was the only one left open during the Soviet occupation, making the small old Tatar Raižiai village a kind of Muslim capital of Lithuania.

2.Check the simple wooden mosque at the Keturiasdešimt Totorių village, now a suburb of Vilnius. The village (whose name means "Forty Tatars") was established in 1397 by Muslims hired to defend the capital of Lithuania and while they have been outnumbered by Christians 75%-25%, the Islamic heritage still reminds of its history. Keturiasdešimt Totorių has three old Muslim cemeteries and the oldest inscription-less gravestones are believed to date to the 14th century. The oldest surviving epitaphs date to 17th century.

3.See the marriage of Arabic and art deco architecture of Kaunas Mosque (New Town borough). With migration many Lithuanian Tatars left their outback villages for the temporary capital Kaunas. Celebrating the 500 death anniversary of Grand Duke Vytautas the Great, credited for bringing Muslims to Lithuania, the Lithuanian government gifted them a new mosque in Kaunas. As such the mosque is named after Vytautas and, interestingly, this makes Vytautas have both a church and a mosque named after him. Kaunas mosque is now the most popular mosque in Lithuania. Sadly Soviets have destroyed the nearby Muslim cemetery.

4.Listen to the stories of Lithuanian Tatar museum owner in Subartonys village (near Dzūkija National Park). A descendant of the original Muslim community she collected some of her family heirlooms and while there are no wonders-of-the-world, the survival of Islam next to massive Lithuanian forests for 500 years (far away from nearly all other Muslims) is impressive by itself.

5.Drive to Nemėžis suburb of Vilnius for yet another wooden Tatar mosque (1909). Graves in the local Muslim cemetery are mostly Polish and Russian. Having abandoned their own Tatar language the Lithuanian Tatars would have adopted the locally important languages, and these two languages prevailed here.

6.Taste čeburekai, the popular pastries with meat inside. They are so flat because once Lithuanian Tatar soldiers would store them between their horse and saddle while riding to war. Today čeburekai are a favorite fast food of non-Muslim Lithuanians as well. However, this means that far from every modern version is halal.

7.Check the Kėdainiai minaret, the only such structure in Lithuania. Interestingly there was never a mosque in Kėdainiai. The minaret was built by the owner of a local manor who fought in Crimean war and there became inspired by Muslim architecture. A Quran quotation on the minaret says "Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission?" (surah 2, line 225), while another plaque is unrelated to Islam and likely looted from some palace in Ottoman Empire.

8.Enjoy the sweetness of Šimtalapis, yet another famous meal (cake) of Lithuanian Tatars.

9.Go to see the memorial plaque in Mečetės street in Vilnius New Town. "Mečetė" means "Mosque" in Lithuanian, however, you won't find one there. That's because the atheist Soviet occupational regime had destroyed a 19th-century wooden mosque that stood there and the surrounding Muslim cemetery, leaving Vilnius among the few European capitals without a mosque. While many other religious communities had their lands returned (while Jews additionally even had over 100 million paid to them by Lithuania for the Soviet-destroyed property), Lithuanian Muslims were not given comparable land to rebuild their mosque, likely because they lack a lobbying power.

10.Contact the Muftiat of Lithuania in Vilnius New Town (reestablished after independence). Like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the national Mufti is the leader of all country's Muslims. Located in a random 20th century building the Muftiat is of little interest by itself but perhaps it will help you arrange a visit to the historic mosques.

Map of the top 10 Islamic locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Top 10 minorities

These are the 10 groups of peoples with distinct regional, ethnic or religious identities that have influenced the Lithuanian nation the most and left the most heritage within Lithuania:

1.Lutherans. For centuries Lithuania was divided into two distinct sub-ethnic areas: the east, ruled by Poland-Lithuania and then Russia, remained Catholic, while the west (ruled by Germans) became Lutheran. That Lutheran Lithuania, or Lithuania Minor, was destroyed by the Soviet genocide after World War 2 and Lutheran percentages there dwindled from ~95% to under 5%. However, much heritage still reminds this unique community born at the crossroads of Lithuanian and German cultures. This includes red brick churches and buildings, talented metalworks and more. Lutherans make up 0,7% of Lithuania's population.

2.Poles. A centuries-old alliance and then federation between Poland and Lithuania caused many Lithuanians (~10%) to adopt Polish language and culture over generations. These "Poles-Lithuanians" greatly influenced the wider Polish culture, creating many great works of art and literature in Lithuania and beyond, as well as wielding massive political influence. Most of them had both Polish and Lithuanian versions of their names and, after the Polish and Lithuanian nations have completely separated after World War 1, it became often disputed whether they were "mainly Poles" or "mainly Lithuanians". During 19th-20th centuries many "Polish-Lithuanians" switched back to Lithuanian language and customs, but perhaps just as many opted for a singular Polish identity. As such, two Lithuanian municipalities (out of 60) currently have Polish majorities (the Poles are concentrated around Vilnius). Poles make up 6,65% of Lithuania's population.

3.Pagans. Lithuania was the final independent nation of Europe to abandon paganism. Some may claim it was never fully abandoned at all, as many pagan practices remained within now-Christian festivals. These days, however, thousands of people seek to restore the full pagan faith as well, starting the neo-pagan Romuva religion. They were extremely successful and Romuva became the fastest growing faith in Lithuania, quadrupling its followers between 2001 and 2011 censae. They have constructed prehistory-inspired holy sites (alkas) where they celebrate the once-dying-out festivals. Pagans make up 0,2% of Lithuania's population.

4.Samogitians. While Lithuania is divided into 5 sub-ethnic regions, Samogitia is the one that clings to its unique identity the most. Samogitian dialect is so distinct that it is sometimes considered a separate language, and a few Samogitians even claim "Samogitian" rather than "Lithuanian" as their ethnicity in censae. To others, Samogitians are the "best Lithuanians", as they were the only ones that even had their nobility speaking Lithuanian through all the centuries (rather than adopting more politically convenient Polish, German or Russian). Approximately 17% of Lithuania's population live in Samogitia, most of them natively Samogitians.

5.Jews. The numbers of Lithuania's Jews peaked in the 19th century when Lithuania was among the few lands of Russian Empire where they were allowed to freely settle. While later emigration and genocide have dwindled their numbers, the Jewish heritage in Lithuania is still impressive, consisting of some 80 synagogues and memories of key Jewish figures who have influenced the Jewish thought worldwide, such as Vilna Gaon. Jews make up 0,1% of Lithuania's population.

6.Karaims are a unique ethnoreligious group following a religion that includes some Jewish, Christian and Islamic practices. Their ancestors were brought in from southernmost reaches of Grand Duchy of Lithuania by grand duke Vytautas. Today however even in their original homeland there are just 1000 or so left, so the Karaim communities of Lithuania with their two kenessas (temples) have few counterparts in the world. While Karaim faith seems exotic, Karaim cuisine (kibin pasties) is popular among people of Lithuania of all ethnicities. Karaims make up 0,01% of Lithuania's population, numbering just around 250.

7.Lithuanian Americans. The USA was the favorite destination of Lithuanian migrants, especially during times of occupations. During periods of independence (1918-1940, 1990-) some Lithuanian-Americans have returned to Lithuania to help reestablish its economy and political system. They have wielded a disproportionate influence. Some have bequeathed their riches and works of art to Lithuania, creating numerous museums in Lithuania. Lithuanian-Americans have also popularized basketball in Lithuania. There are some 700 thousand people of Lithuanian ancestry in the USA. If they would all migrate to Lithuania, they would make up 19% of population

8.Russian Old Believers descend from Russian Orthodox people who refused to adhere to Nikon's reforms centuries ago. As a result, they became heavily persecuted in Russia and sought refuge in 17th century Lithuania. Heavily guarding their identity and "true faith" they established many out-of-the-beaten-path villages centered around pretty wooden churches in the Lithuanian countryside. Many now are empty, but their churches and cemeteries come to life once again when the Old Believers come from the cities for religious festivals. Old Believers make up 0,9% of Lithuania's population.

9.Muslim Tatars. As Lithuania was at its largest extent in the 15th century, it even ruled part of the Islamic world near the Black Sea. From there the Grand Duke Vytautas has brought in thousands of Tatars and hired them as soldiers. Over the centuries they have lost their language but not their religion, which has developed some unique characteristics. While Tatar numbers dwindled through assimilation, a few wooden mosques remained as an interesting addition to Lithuanian countryside. Lithuanians also enjoy the Tatar cuisine (čeburekai pasties, šimtalapis cake). Muslim Tatars make up 0,1% of Lithuania's population, of them some half with Medieval origins.

10.Soviet settlers. Arguably the most controversial community of Lithuania, the Soviet settlers are largely Russophone people sent to live in Lithuania by the Soviet Union (and their descendants). Being mostly urban, they add a "Russian" touch to Lithuanian cities, making the Russian music, festivals and media more popular. Some third of them emigrated after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the new generations tend to slowly integrate. Soviet settlers and their descendants make up ~6% of Lithuania's population.

Note: the list above is subjective and it is meant to serve just as an introduction of the key minorities of Lithuania. For an objective and extensive articles on all the Lithuania's ethnic and religious groups, please see the sections on Ethnicities of Lithuania and Religions of Lithuania.

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