On The Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

The Hill of Crosses keeps coming back!

Bulldozed three times by the Soviet authorities, the Hill of Crosses in Northern Lithuania always came back. Over 100,000 crosses of all sizes were at the site, spread over two hillocks 12km north of the city of Siauliai, Lithuania's 4th largest city.The planting of crosses originally started in the 1860s, though the exact reason for this has been lost in clouds of incense and piety. I was told two stories about the origins of the cross-planting. The patriotic version says proud Lithuanians planted crosses on the hill to commemorate their fellow freedom-fighters whose bodies couldn't be found in the surrounding forests after they had been hunted and killed by the Russians.Folklore says that a 19th Century peasant became ill one day and immediately felt he was going to die.

He wanted to live

He wanted to live and planted a cross on the hill to try and persuade God to let him live. Miraculously, this is what happened. The story spread about this great happening. Soon other crosses were placed there, all planted with fervent prayers for the preservation of a life, but no record has been kept as to their success.More recently, the hill has become a place of pilgrimage due to Pope John Paul II's mass at the site in 1993. The construction of a shiny new Franciscan monastery in 2001 indicates the growing importance of the Hill of Crosses as a spiritual centre. This importance mirrors Lithuania's growing strength as an independent country that joined the European Union in 2005. When I pulled off the main Siauliai to Riga Road, which is about 300 yards from the Hill, I immediately noticed the large wooden statue of Jesus with his arms wide apart in welcome. Having parked in the large lot, I walked over to where a set of steps neatly bisect the hillocks. From the top I could see the new monastery and also better appreciate how densely packed the crosses are together.

Still Thriving

They are not in orderly rows as in a neat cemetery, but are sown over the ground as though sprouting from a special kind of spiritual seed, spread by a divine hand. Many of the larger crosses have hundreds of smaller crosses made from metal, wood, and even pink plastic hanging from them. There are occasional images of Jesus amongst the crosses and I was moved by the acts of faith that placed them here.The real miracle is that the Hill of Crosses still exists "“ given the Soviet bulldozing attempts and before that the Nazi invasion of World War II. Nowadays, the Hill has to be protected from only those with good intentions. Signs at the site indicate that no candles should be lit, because as most of the crosses are wooden and become tinder dry during the summer season.Around 60 square yards of the hill were burnt by a carelessly placed candle in December 2006. The area covered by the crosses is growing and seems to be expanding towards the new monastery. When I visited, large crosses had been added in recent days by visitors from Brazil, pilgrims from Radom in Poland, and Maltese youth of Hamburg.In a way, the Hill of Crosses symbolizes Lithuania. The country survived being part of the Russian Empire in the 19th Century, being part of a greater Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, and being occupied first by the Nazis and then by the Soviet Union. The Hill of Crosses survives and flourishes to this day, whereas the bulldozer that destroyed crosses, manor houses, and other symbols of Lithuanian independence has long since rusted into dust.

Written and photography by Julian Worker