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True Lithuania

Hill of Crosses

The most important place of interest in the area is the Hill of Crosses north of Šiauliai. Visited both by pilgrims and irreligious tourists this place is a remarkable symbol of Lithuanian peaceful resistance to the Soviet occupation. People used to bring crosses to a hill once crowned by a medieval castle. The atheist Soviet government used to tear all the crosses down and persecute the pilgrims, but very soon the crosses would spring up again, restoring the number to hundreds and thousands.

This Virgin Mary statue (erected by a visitor in 1994) became popular for pilgrimage as evident by many small crosses hanging on the large crosses that surround it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In 1990 when Lithuanian independence was restored 14 387 large crosses and 40 944 small crosses were counted, covering an area of 4602 square meters. By 2007 the number surpassed 200 000. In 1997 a Franciscan monastery was built next to the hill. The monastery chapel (open for visiting) has a large window with the hill visible in the background instead of altar paintings.

The atmosphere in the Hill of Crosses may be surreal. Thousands of large wooden crosses are used as platforms for many times that number of small ones, all of which beautifully chime in the wind. Most of them bear inscriptions with names of the people and their reasons for erecting the cross. There are crosses built by biker clubs, political parties, ordinary families, pilgrims from far away lands, priests and every other category of people you may imagine. They thank God or ask for his guidance, remember life-changing events, seek help for some particular groups of the population. The inscriptions are largely Lithuanian, but you may find those in countless other languages representing different Christian denominations. The crosses are eagerly erected up to this day as you can see in the recent dates inscribed on some of the crosses.

A part of the Hill of the Crosses in winter. In this season you may have the place all to yourself, meditate or pray with hundreds of thousands of little crosses chiming in the cold wind. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The tradition of erecting crosses here might have started under Imperial Russian rule in the mid-19th century. A legend tells that one person from Jurgaičiai promised God that he would build a cross on this hill in case his disease would pass. The disease passed and the man kept his promise - later to be followed by others. There are other stories, such as the one about a person whose daughter was ill and who received a vision that he should build a cross there. Whatever the reasons for its inception the place became an important pilgrimage site and erecting a cross here became a popular way to thank God.

The Lithuanian art of cross-crafting (kryždirbystė) is inscribed into the UNESCO list of immaterial world heritage. Not long ago most of Lithuania's roads were adorned by many large wooden crosses. Today there are few roadside crosses left but the Hill of Crosses is an important monument to this art. 50 of its crosses are regarded to be of major cultural significance.

Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses in 1993.

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  1. I was there least month and overwhelmed. But time was tight. I would like to buy some wooden cross hand made in Lithuania. Where please. Please tell me more about how Christians were persecuted by putting crosses there. What did they have to fear? Also please tell me more about its listing with UNESCO or other world heritage sites. Thank you!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      As for the persecutions, Soviet Union was de facto an atheist state and also as a socialist planned economy, meaning that the state controlled all the economy. There was no private sector as such: everything was owned by the state (schools, hospitals, factories, shops, services…). This gave the state immense power: basically, for example, religious students could have been punished by bad grades at schools and not being accepted to universities (or expelled from universities); religious adults may have been punsihed by being demoted in job or they could have been refused a permit for buying a car or going on holiday and so on. KGB would have collected information about every person and this would have been used in deciding his/her career and other things that influence his/her quality of life.

      Of course, state couldn’t have read your mind, so your actions would have been used to decide upon you, and erecting a cross on the Hill of Crosses would be quite a serious proof of active religiousness. Moreover, erecting a cross there was illegal, meaning that you could have been directly punished by the Soviet law as well if caught. It should be noted that for the most “grave” cases of “anti-Soviet ideology” actions there were not only far-away jails but also insane assylums as many non-communist (and especially anti-communist and pro-independence) thoughts were considered to be a manifestation of insanity by the Soviet Russian government.

      Of course, not every religious activity was treated the same: practicing religion in a church behind closed doors during Mass was tolerated more. Still, many churches had been closed down and anybody higher up in the social ladder was expected not to go there, to such extent that the high-ranking people would not even go to their family church weddings fearing career repecussions. Religion was expected to “naturally die out” by the government and any action promoting it was not welcome; see article on Irreligiousness in Lithuania.

      There was a newspaper “Catholic Church Chronicles” published illegally underground (in printing houses such as this secret one) – that newspaper was full of exact descriptions of the discriminations the religious (among others) faced in the Soviet Union.

      What I describe used to happen in post-Stalin times. Under the Stalinist genocide many actively religious people were just murdered.

      Hill of Crosses itself is not listed with UNESCO, but the Lithuanian art of cross-making is (as an immaterial heritage). And the Hill of Crosses is the best repository of this art.

      • I’m trying to contact someone to use a picture of John Paul II at the Hill of Crosses in a story I’m writing about it. Do you have copyright for it?

        Eliott Rhodes

        • Hello, I don’t have the Copyright.

          Here it is used as per fair use (Lithuanian law on Copyright and Related Rights article 24 clause 2, which allows free use of copyrighted material when it is used to convey information about major public events, if it is of secondary importance in conveying such information (in this particular case, the primary importance if of the text)).

          However, depending on how and where you would use it, this may not apply to you.

  2. Please give brochures beautiful places there.
    What to do?
    I wanna sightseeing.

    Answer me,
    Criscora Pajaron Imhoff

  3. i dream to have a large cross and jessus in colour on it .Very large cross 2 meter
    i hang it in my bedroom . so when i look to it relieve my pain wich i suffering now. one day . I love crosses you got very lovely site

  4. i will be visiting this November. may I leave a cross there?

  5. Don’t miss this if you are anywhere near this area. This was my most favorite place to visit while in Lithuania visiting family. We left two crosses. One represented our Lithuanian family and the other our America family. I felt very blessed that I was able to visit such a unique and spiritual site.

  6. When the old political structure of Eastern Europe fell apart in 1918, Lithuania once again declared its independence. Throughout this time, the Hill of Crosses was used as a place for Lithuanians to pray for peace, for their country, and for the loved ones they had lost during the Wars of Independence .

  7. The Hill of Crosses is located in Aukštaitija, not Žemaitija.

    • It is on the border of Aukštaitija and Žemaitija (Samogitia). As these ethnographic regions are not administrative units of Lithuania, the borders are not entirely clear: they are cultural rather than political, and there is a certain continuum of, for example, dialects.

      In any case, it is generally accepted that the nearby city of Šiauliai is part of Žemaitija (Samogitia) and as Hill of Crosses is nearly always accessed from Šiauliai, so it would be inconvenient for the readers to list the hill as a part of Aukštaitija.

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