During our bus ride to Siauliai, HOB and I munched on supermarket sandwiches which turned out to be mostly mayonnaise. Our driver was blasting Queen and I must say there probably isn’t a better way to arrive at a pilgrimage site in Northern Lithuania than being serenaded by We Are the Champions while eating a mayonnaise sandwich.
In fact the actual Hill of Crosses is about 10K outside of town, so we had to take a taxi (regrettably our cab driver did not play Queen).
The Hill of Crosses is, um, a hill with crosses on it.
We’re talking roughly a gazillion crosses.
When you start looking closer at the Hill of Crosses you can see the crosses themselves are hung with other crosses and underneath them is a dense undergrowth of still more crosses.
Some crosses have a folk art vibe: UNESCO lists cross-crafting as an intangible cultural heritage practice in Lithuania.
Sun-faded figurines are nestled in with the crosses.
The Hill of Crosses is not a tourist trap. No one is selling t-shirts and postcards (or crosses for that matter). We were among just a few pilgrims enjoying the dramatic light and the sound of crosses tinkling in a light breeze.
We walked to a monastery just behind the cross hill. That view = perfection.
The story of the Hill of Crosses is as much of a story of resilience as one of religion. During the Soviet occupation of the Baltics the hill was repeatedly destroyed. After the Soviets, who opposed religion, knocked down the crosses the Lithuanian people put them up again. The Soviet jerks mowed them down. The Lithuanians brought in new crosses. And so on, until finally; bye bye Soviet oppressors, hello ginormous Hill of Crosses.
This avalanche of religious symbolism is especially interesting if you consider that Lithuania was the last remaining Pagan country in Europe: it didn’t officially convert to Christianity until 1387. But of course, the country was not entirely Christian. Many Jews lived in Lithuania until Nazis murdered 143,000 of them during the Holocaust (including 8000 Jews from Siauliai).
The convergence of religious and national identity is compelling—is there anything more powerful than a shared narrative? As much as I love religious pilgrimage sites, though, I find religious nationalism can be a bit creepy. The implication is if you don’t believe, you don’t belong. If you don’t belong, well you don’t have rights. This sort of religious nationalism is currently an alarming trend in the United States.
The best way to enjoy the Hill of Crosses is to appreciate the peaceful beauty and spirituality of the surroundings while admiring the resilience of the Lithuanian people. Let’s leave religious nationalism to the zealots, shall we?
Siauliai is a pleasant town with a long pedestrian boulevard lined with sculptures from the 1970’s. Their tourist information center is first rate.
The apartment we rented for the night was nice. However, we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heat, so we spent a rather chilly night. The room did come with this puzzle, though, so net win.