Lithuania's Kryzių Kalnas, or the Hill of Crosses is many things. Situated 8 miles north of the city of Siauliai, it has become an international site of pilgrimage. It is beautiful, eerie, spiritual, and perhaps most of all, it is powerfully evocative. A place of awareness and reflection, it memorializes and demonstrates the Lithuanian national identity, their spirit and perseverance, their faith, hope, and freedom.
As one approaches the small hill down a lengthy walkway, the scale of this site comes clearly into focus. We visited on a beautiful day; however, there were some very dark clouds that rolled in, foretelling rain. The sky felt simpatico with the site.
Lithuania has a rich tradition of cross-crafting dating back to the 1400s. Its cultural significance is authenticated by UNESCO's inscription of Lithuanian cross-crafting as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The crosses, traditionally measuring between 3 and 16 feet tall, are intricately carved, often from oak symbolizing strength and masculinity, but sometimes from iron, or with iron embellishments. Frequently, the crosses are further decorated with smaller carved crosses, rosaries, and spiritual icons. Lithuanian crosses are displayed throughout the country, not only at churches and cemeteries, but beside roadways, at village entrances, near monuments, at shops and homes; they are ubiquitous.
The actual beginning of the Hill of Crosses is shrouded in mystery complete with legends and miracles. The city of Siauliai, like that of Lithuania, has a challenging history. Founded in 1236, the city was occupied by Teutonic Knights during the 14th century. It is believed that crosses first arose as a Lithuanian symbol of defiance to these foreign invaders in the 14th century.
The city then became a part of Russia in 1795. Many crosses are known to have been erected after the peasant uprising against Soviet occupation in 1831. It is believed that families of the fallen rebels, unable to locate their loved ones' bodies, started installing symbolic crosses at at this former hill fort site.
Siauliai fell to Germany during WWII, but was acquired again by Soviet Russia at the war's end. During this Soviet era, the site took on a special significance. The Russian empire forcefully enacted Russification in the region, attempting to strip Lithuanians of their language, their religion, and much more. Pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses became a fundamental expression of Lithuanian nationalism. Contrary to the Soviets' dictates, Lithuanians continued to come, demonstrating their allegiance to not only their religion but also to their identity and heritage. It became their platform of peaceful resistance and quiet defiance.
The Soviets removed the crosses in 1961, again in 1973, and again in 1975. They bulldozed the hill, incinerated the wooden crosses, and turned the iron ones into scrap metal. They further desecrated the area by covering it in waste and sewage. Yet, each time it was destroyed, Lithuanians from throughout the country came, prayed, and erected more crosses.
There were more than 150 large crosses on the site in 1895, 200 in 1914, and 400 in 1940. Today the small hill is swathed in more than 200,000 crosses.
After Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, new life was breathed into the site as a tribute to their freedom. By putting up crosses, people express their devotion to Christ, pray for his mercy and help, and identify their country as a Christian land.
Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses and held Mass on 7 September 1993 for 100,000 people who gathered there. He declared it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. In 1994, the crucifix that Pope John Paul II gave Lithuania was added to the site. A cross blessed by Pope Benedict XVI was added in 2006.
Partially due to the encouragement of Pope John Paul II, a Franciscan monastery, pictured above right, was built on the site; it was consecrated in 2000. The Feast of the Hill of Crosses was reinstated in 1997. Drawing large crowds, this takes place each year on the last Sunday of July.
The Hill of Crosses remains a memorial of Lithuania's unshakeable faith, its past suffering, its resistance to totalitarian regimes, its embrace of its Lithuanian identity and heritage, and its hope for the future. Although this site doesn't appear on many itineraries for The Baltics, I am so glad I included it on mine. The Hill of Crosses is undeniably a unique place which is, yes, powerfully evocative.