Though Lithuania was the very last European state to give up paganism and convert to Christianity in the 14th century, this country gained a reputation of devout Catholics’ land over the subsequent centuries. This fact becomes even more evident if you consider the number of churches erected all over the country. However, while churches can be found elsewhere in the world, there’s a place in Lithuania of a totally unique nature and special significance. It is known as the Hill of Crosses.
Driving on the Šiauliai – Ryga highway, sixteen kilometres form Šiauliai you will find yourself facing a hill, all covered with crosses. At the first sight it might remind you of a cemetery, however it is not. It’s rather a monument to Catholics’ faith and endurance.
The origins and the history of this sacred place are still wrapped in mystery. It is believed that as far back as the 14th century a castle stood on the mound. So, the hill is also known as the castle mound of Domantai or Jurgaičiai.
The name “Hill of Crosses” is first mentioned in the first half 19th century, when Lithuanian – Polish uprisings against the Tsarist Russia took place. It is believed that the families, deprived of the opportunity to bury their relatives who perished during the unsuccessful uprisings, started bringing symbolic crosses to the mound of Domantai as a sign of their grief. Since then this place has been referred to as the Hill of Crosses.
Just as the whole country, the Hill of Crosses went through turbulent times during the Soviet occupation. Famous for their strong atheistic stance, the Soviets were putting considerable effort trying to eliminate all signs of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism and other religions, practiced on the territory of all the 15 Republics of the Soviet Union, including Russia itself. Lithuania was not an exception either. The Soviet Power simply could not bear the thought of a sacred hill where thousands of crosses kept appearing as a manifest of people’s faith. So, the measures were taken: the crosses were burned or taken away to a metal recycling plant and the site was bulldozed. But still during the nights people would erect new crosses, as a sign of protest.
Today the Hill of Crosses remains the symbol of Lithuanians’ faith and one of the main pilgrimage sites in the country. On September 7, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses, declaring it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. In 2000 Franciscan Hermitage was opened nearby.
The hill is still growing and all attempts to count the crosses on it seem to be doomed to failure, for they are simply countless. It has long become a tradition to leave a cross (no matter of what size) once you happen to visit the hill. So if you are driving by the city of Šiauliai, take a moment to drop by the Hill of Crosses – even if you are not a devout Catholic, this place is definitely worth seeing.