Hill of Crosses: The Shrine That Refused to Die

At first glance, the Hill of Crosses looks like a prop from a Clive Barker movie. All those towering crucifixes, adorned with rosaries of varying vintage that rattle gently in the breeze, could strike the non-devout as a little creepy. But if you’re a Catholic making a pilgrimage, you see something both authentic and sacred. The Hill of Crosses (Kryzių Kalnas) is situated approximately seven miles north of Siauliai, a small industrial city in Lithuania. It is famed worldwide as a symbol of both Christian devotion and Lithuanian national identity.

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Tribute to the Fallen

Currently adorned with around 100,000 crucifixes, the Hill of Crosses came into widespread use after scores of rebels were killed in the Lithuanian peasant uprising of 1831. Siauliai had been absorbed by Russia in 1795 (it was returned to Lithuania in 1918), and its residents resented their new overlords. When the Tsarist government refused to let the rebels’ next of kin honor their gravesites, these families planted crosses on the hill as an alternative form of tribute.

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The tradition of placing crosses there actually dates back to the 14th century, when Teutonic Knights occupied Siauliai. The Lithuanian people adopted the practice as a symbol of peaceful resistance against foreign invaders and Catholic oppression.

After 1831, the Hill of Crosses received a steady flow of tributes. By 1895, at least 150 large crosses had taken root, and by 1940 the number had multiplied to 400. During the period of Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1944 until 1991, the hill population skyrocketed, with 2,500 large crosses being counted in 1960. This did not include the thousands of smaller crucifixes that dotted the ground like flowers.