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.
The Soviet government did not take kindly to what it viewed as a subversive expression of Lithuanian nationalism. When Catholics began congregating there to make vows and hold feasts, local officials ordered the site demolished.
The so called “demolition period” began in 1958, when gravel digging commenced. In 1961 bulldozers tackled the Hill of Crosses, dislodging and crushing everything for easy removal. Broken wooden crosses were burned, stone ones ended up in the Kulpė Stream, and all tributes made of metal were lugged off to the junkyard.
To avoid a violent uprising, Soviet authorities limited the destruction to 500 crosses a year, saying that they only removed the ones that were badly degraded and/or had no artistic value. To prevent re-population, they even announced swine fever and rabies epidemics, and made it illegal to access the area.
To make sure that the place remained cross-free, police guards were stationed at the road to the hill and KGB officers infiltrated the surrounding forests, but it was a wasted effort. New crosses appeared on a nightly basis, and after each of the four demolitions in 1961, 1973, and 1975, the Hill of Crosses kept resurrecting. It simply refused to be eradicated: after each desecration, locals and even pilgrims from other parts of Lithuania replaced all the crosses that had been swept away. Finally, in 1985, the Soviet authorities left the place alone.
Praying for Miracles
The hill’s reputation as a pilgrimage site shows no signs of slowing down. The steady stream of Christian visitors became a flood after Pope John Paul II visited the site in September 1993, most of them bearing crosses to add to the collection. Today there is an estimated 200,000 crucifixes adorning the hill, each one representing a tribute to a departed loved one or a prayer to Jesus for a miracle.
The sheer variety of crosses is nearly as stunning as their numbers. Some are plastic, others are shaped from metal or carved by hand from fine wood. In terms of size, they range from nearly ten feet tall to tiny, keychain-sized replicas that hang from their bigger counterparts. Interspersed among the crosses are rosaries, images of Jesus and different saints, and even photos of fallen Lithuanian heroes.
Those who have visited the Hill of Crosses on windy days swear that the breezes stirring the hanging rosaries make unforgettable music.
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Visitors traveling by car can get to the Hill of Crosses by driving along the A12, en route to Riga, until they reach Siauliai. After driving north another few miles, a sign will appear that reads “KRYŽIŲ KALNAS – 2 km”. Turn right at the sign.
Those traveling by bus can go to the main Siauliai bus station and catch the SIAULIAI – JONISKIS route at platform 12. Get off at DOMANTŲ station (third stop) and walk.
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