The Hill of Crosses is a site of pilgrimage about 12 km north of the city of Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania. It has fascinating origins.
The precise origin of the practice of leaving crosses on the hill is uncertain, but it is believed that the first crosses were placed on the former Jurgaičiai or Domantai hill fort after the 1831 Uprising.
Over the generations, not only crosses and crucifixes, but statues of the Virgin Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots and thousands of tiny effigies and rosaries have been brought here by Catholic pilgrims.
The exact number of crosses is unknown, but estimates put it at about 200,000. It is a major site of Catholic pilgrimage in Lithuania.
Over the generations, the place has come to signify the peaceful endurance of Lithuanian people despite the threats they faced throughout history. Legend holds that the Virgin Mary appeared on the hill, asking them to show their religious dedication by filling it with crosses to mark the deaths of loved ones.
A local historian said that there used to be a church on the site before it was razed by a lightning strike and a fire. The church collapsed with people still inside.
Hill of Crosses: Enemy of Russia
In 1795, Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire. Poles and Lithuanians unsuccessfully rebelled against Russian authorities in 1831 and 1863. These two uprisings are connected with the beginnings of the hill: as families could not locate bodies of perished rebels, they started putting up symbolic crosses at the site of a former hill fort.
A stone inscribed with the words of Pope John Paul II: “Thank you, Lithuanians, for this Hill of Crosses which testifies to the nations of Europe and to the whole world the faith of the people of this land.”
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.
The site took on a special significance during the years 1944–1990, when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Continuing to travel to the hill and leave their tributes, Lithuanians used it to demonstrate their allegiance to their original identity, religion and heritage. It was a venue of peaceful resistance, although the Soviets worked hard to remove new crosses, and bulldozed the site at least three times (including attempts in 1963 and 1973).
It soon transformed into an important pilgrimage site where people would travel from all across the Baltic lands to mark someone’s passing or to pray for a miracle. But while it might have brought solace or hope to a mourner or pilgrim, visiting it came with the risk of being beaten, arrested or imprisoned by KGB agents.
There were even rumors that the authorities planned to build a dam on the nearby Kulvė River, a tributary to Mūša, so that the hill would end up underwater.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses, declaring it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. Then, in 2000 a Franciscan hermitage was opened nearby.
In May 2013, Šiauliai District Municipality adopted rules regarding the placement of crosses. People are allowed to erect wooden crosses less than 3 metres (9.8 ft) in height with no permits.
In December 2019, a tourist from China removed and tossed away a cross believed to be set up by the Hong Kong pro-democracy camp. She later condemned the protesters in a Twitter post and in an Instagram video saying, “We have done a good thing today. Our motherland is great.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius condemned the woman’s action in a tweet that called it a “shameful, disgraceful act of vandalism” and said such behavior “can’t and won’t be tolerated.”
By 1991 Lithuania had gained independence and with it their religious freedom. The Hill of Crosses was no longer in danger of being desecrated and was subject to tens of thousands of new installations and millions of annual visitors.
The Hill of Crosses is one of the world’s most unique pilgrimage sites, an important symbol of national identity to the people of Lithuania.
If you are an Irish Catholic, this story may seem a little familiar.