Covered with over 100,000 crosses of different sizes, Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses is both a symbol of the country’s nationalism and an international pilgrimage site.
Located 12 kilometers north of the small industrial city of Šiauliai, the Hill of Crosses is believed to date back to the 14th century, during the occupation of the Teutonic Knights. The tradition of placing crosses began as a symbol of the people’s fight for independence and their fight against foreign invaders, and evolved into a struggle of Lithuanian Catholicism against oppression. During the peasant uprising that lasted between 1831 and 1863, people erected crosses on the hill, in protest, and by 1895 there were around 150 of them on the site. By 1940, the number of large crosses grew to 400, surrounded by many other smaller ones.
Occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, Šiauliai and the Hill of Crosses suffered significant damage when the Soviets took over, at the end of the conflict. The communist regime repeatedly removed all the crosses and leveled the hill three times, in 1961, 1973 and 1975, burning the wooden crosses and turning metal ones into scrap metal. The area was covered with waste and sewage to discourage locals from returning, but the Hill of Crosses was a symbol of Lithuanian nationalism and the pilgrims from all over the country quickly came back to the hill after each desecration, to place even more crosses. Many of them risked their lives sneaking past armed guards and through barbed wire fences to show their commitment to national struggle. The Soviet’s finally got the message and in 1985, the Hill of Crosses was finally left in peace, and its reputation rapidly spread throughout the Christian world.