How many crosses can you spot in this picture? We imagine it'd take quite a while to count them all...
Amid lush green hills in the Lithuanian countryside, just outside the city of Šiauliai, a strange sight greets visitors: tens of thousands of crosses, big and small, made out of metal, wood or granite are piled on top of each other. While their purpose is at first unclear, as visitors move along the crosses that snake uphill, their function is sadly unveiled.
The Hill of Crosses features tens of thousands of crosses, each telling a story of loss, war and death.
The origins and history of the Hill of Crosses (Kryžių kalnas in Lithuanian), about 12 km north of the city of Šiauliai, are as mysterious as the place itself. Nobody knows when exactly the custom of leaving crosses on top of the hill started. What is known is that the area once housed a fort, and that 1831 is most likely the year when the first crosses started to appear.
This picture offers us a glimpse of the serene landscape in which the Hill of Crosses is nestled, and also shows the way the crowded crosses form a snaking shape up the hill.
The year 1831 was an important one for Lithuania as it marked the end of the November Uprising (1830-31), during which partitioned Poland sought independence from the Russian Empire. The neighboring states of Western Belarus, parts of Ukraine and Lithuania (also belonging to the Russian Empire) soon joined the uprising. Despite this support, the insurgents only had about one third of the strength of the Russian Army, and soon the uprising was crushed resulting in the loss of some 40,000 men.
An elaborate cross, complete with a sculpture of the dying Christ, surrounded by hundreds of smaller ones.
Another rebellion called the January Uprising lasted from 1863 to 1865. The aforementioned states rose up once more against the Russian Empire, supported by Latvia and western Russia, but still to no avail. The Russian Army remained stronger. Overall, between 10,000 to 20,000 insurgents are believed to have lost their lives. Many Lithuanian families weren’t able to retrieve the bodies of the fallen and thus put up symbolic crosses where the former hill fort was located.
In winter, the Hill of Crosses exudes an especially haunting sense of calm, with the snow stifling any sound and adding to its peaceful atmosphere.
After World War I, Lithuania fought three times for its independence, during what are now called the Lithuanian Wars of Independence, or the Freedom Struggles. These wars were variously fought against Bolshevik forces (from 1918-19), the West Russian Volunteer Army (1919) and Poland (in 1920).
As we can see in this image, some crosses are elaborate ones that look like they once decorated a grave. The five white crosses each to the left and right of the bigger one in the center carry the names of members of the same family. The inscription under the big cross in the middle reads “Viespatie suteik amzina ramybe zuvusiems lietuvos laisves kovos sajudzio partizanams”, “The Lord bestow eternal peace on the partisans who died in the Lithuanian Liberation Movement”.
The Hill of Crosses saw its biggest growth between 1944 and 1990, during the period of Lithuania’s occupation by the Soviet Union. From approximately 400 crosses in 1938, the memorial grew to over 5,000 in 1961. This silent resistance was a thorn in the side of the authorities and the Hill of Crosses was bulldozed at least three times, most notably in 1961 and 1975. Luckily, to no avail. As soon as the crosses were removed, some reappeared the very next day and their numbers continued to grow.
Here Christ seems not just to be shouldering his own burden, but that of hundreds of miniature crucifixes, too.
In 1990, more than 55,000 crosses were estimated to be at the site, most likely due to an urgent need to express gratitude and to remember the fallen after Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union, which took place in March of that year. Since then, the Hill of Crosses has gained the approval and admiration of many international visitors, some as notable as Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1993 and prayed there. Continuing the trend for spirituality at the site, a Franciscan monastery opened near the Hill of Crosses in 2000.
Images of the Virgin Mary surrounded by thousands of crosses.
Supported by the community but officially under no one’s jurisdiction, the Hill of Crosses continues to attract visitors from near and far who come to pay their respects and, indeed, to add their own cross. For Catholic pilgrims, the place holds special significance and, over the decades, large crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary have begun to appear amid the vast collection of crosses. Interestingly, the craft of cross-making is an important part of Lithuania’s cultural history. This tradition even goes back to pre-Christian times, where it took the form of pagan memorial trees.
Another winter image shows the small chapel, which offers visitors a sheltered spot for some quiet contemplation.
The history of Christianity in Lithuania is not a straightforward one and, despite attempts by Christian crusaders to convert Lithuanians, Lithuania was dominated by Baltic paganism until the 14th century. This pre-Christian mythology was soon eclipsed by the spread of Christianity, and the details of Lithuanian pagan traditions survive today in only a very fragmentary form.
In spring and summer, the lush green surroundings let the sudden multitude of crosses seem quite surreal.
On the threshold between the east and the west, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania kept a tolerant approach toward its neighbors and their cultures and religions. In fact, there was a great deal of cultural and linguistic diversity. Undergoing a period of growth in the Middle Ages, Lithuania not only expanded to include what today is Belarus and Ukraine, but even some parts of Russia and Poland too. Indeed, by the end of the 14th century, Lithuania prided itself on being the biggest country in Europe.
Crosses come in all colors, shapes, sizes and materials – even Lego blocks, as seen here.
In 1385, Lithuania’s independent stance and multiculturalism changed when Grand Duke Jogaila became king of Poland. Jogaila instituted a personal union between Poland and Lithuania, which included the gradual Christianization of the latter. It is believed that Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe to adopt Christianity.
Siauliai’s Hill of Crosses, seen from a different perspective.
Even today, cross crafting is an integral part of Lithuanian culture, and the crafters of the traditional oak crosses are known beyond the country’s borders. Though the symbol of the cross is firmly rooted in the Roman Catholic religion, which prevails in Lithuania today, its origins are believed to be pre-Christian. As mentioned earlier, the making of crosses can be linked to the memorial poles that symbolized the pagan world tree found in many Indo-European, Siberian and Mayan religions and mythologies.
This view makes the Hill of Crosses look like a surreal, and incredibly densely-packed cemetery.
The stylized crosses crafted by Lithuanian artisans are often intricately decorated, incorporating skills from architecture, sculpture, painting and metalwork. They can also range between one and five meters in height. In honor of its distinctiveness, Lithuanian cross crafting has been included in UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. The Hill of Crosses is not only a memorial to those who lost their lives in the struggle for independence but also a symbol of the Lithuanian people and a tribute to their skill.
It is almost impossible to estimate the number of crosses in this relatively small space, but it easily runs to tens of thousands.
The number of crosses left at the site has grown significantly in recent years. They roughly doubled between 1990 and 2006, growing from around 55,000 to over 100,000. This rapid acceleration can in part be credited to the emergence of the internet: thanks to the uniqueness of its sad, curious history, word of Lithuania's Hill of Crosses has naturally been spreading online. This certainly suggests that the Hill's central idea is a universal one, with the location’s peaceful aspect providing a place for prayer and also, perhaps, a spot to silently meditate on those who have lost their lives in the struggle for freedom throughout the world.
Some crosses have names or messages written on them.
For those who are unable to travel to Lithuania but who would still like to leave a cross at the site, there’s good news. You can simply contact HillofCrosses[at]gmail[dot]com and send specifications by email of what you’d like your cross to say. Whether or not an actual standard wooden cross with your name will be added to the collection (or whether it will be a virtual one) is unclear from the description on the site, but it's certainly a nice idea!