I went to Šiauliai [pronounced Shaolay, or something like that] – purely to visit the famous Hill of Crosses. It’s twelve kilometres from Šiauliai, and a local bus goes ten kilometres to the crossroads. It’s a nice walk through farmland to reach the site itself.
My first thought upon arriving at the Hill of Crosses was that this was the place that crosses go to die. It’s probably not the most appropriate thought, given that it’s supposed to be a sacred place, but it really does look like a cross cemetery. It has a special place in Lithuanian history and the struggle against various occupying powers.
So, a bit of information about the site:
It’s believed that the first crosses were erected on the hill – which is more of a mound really – as a memorial to the rebels who died in the 1831 tsarist rebellion. The families of the deceased rebels were prohibited from paying tribute at the graves of the dead, and so used this site instead. Further crosses were added following another failed rebellion against the Russian tsar in 1863.
Local folk myths however claim that the crosses first appeared in the 1870s, after the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus appeared at the mound and encouraged people to do so. Given that there were already seventeen crosses there in 1850, I’m going to take the path of logic and go with the first, slightly more acceptable to my faithless mind, explanation.
During the Soviet occupation, the Communist government wasn’t too happy about the Hill of Crosses. Firstly of course the Soviets wanted to stamp out religious belief, and this was a very popular site for the faithful – services took place there and feasts were held on certain saint’s days. It had also become a symbol of local or ‘native’ identity – and this didn’t fit with the intended Sovietisation of the country. As a result, the Soviets waged a twenty year war against the Hill of Crosses, starting in 1958 when a local collective began digging gravel there. In 1961, the wooden crosses were burnt, metal crosses taken for scrap metal and stone or concrete crosses smashed. Apparently around five hundred crosses were removed every year – clearly as they were removed, Lithuanians simply replaced them. Later on it was claimed there was a rabies epidemic in the area, and the roads were blocked by police. In the 1980s the hill was flooded, and yet after each demolition attempt more crosses sprung up. Some claim this was a series of miracles – I think it’s more likely that the local people simply kept on adding more. The Hill of Crosses was in many ways a symbol of Lithuanian’s resistance against their Soviet overlords. Clearly the communists lost this war.
The brochure about the site that they give you at the information centre states that there is around one hundred thousand crosses at the site. I think that this is a conservative estimate [and I seriously doubt that anyone has actually counted them]. The numbers are literally growing every day, as virtually everyone – pilgrim or tourist – stops at the collection of souvenir shops just outside and buys a few cheap crosses to add to the hill. I didn’t add any, as I didn’t feel that it would have been appropriate. I’ll leave the building of the site to the people to whom it means something, rather than be someone who just wants to say that they helped it grow. And the options there were pretty tacky.
It’s really quite an unusual, bizarre place. There are big crosses, little crosses, old crosses and new crosses, curly metal crosses and chunky wooden things, lovely carved marble crosses and crosses made of sticks tied together with twine, beautiful crosses and crappy plastic things made out of children’s toys.
Every cross of a reasonable size is weighed down with smaller hangers-on and rosaries, like a person laden with beads at Mardi Gras. Its crazy.
In amongst all this you’ll come across fading pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
There’s also a big statue of Jesus with welcoming arms at the front of the hill, and a smaller statue of Mary at the top. I also saw what I think was once a nativity, but it was hard to tell under the mountains of rosaries.
One cross did make me smile though. It was made out of some kind of plastic kid’s toy, where you connect the pieces together.
All in all, the place was an odd mixture of fascinating and creepy. If only there was a cross made of Lego…