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A Pilgrimage to The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai, Lithuania

Situated just outside a small industrial town called Šiauliai in rural Lithuania is a place of Pilgrimage for many people, mainly because of the historical importance and deep rooted religious connections to Lithuanias troubled past. The Hill of Crosses is one of the most spectacular sights in the Baltic countries it is a unique and mysterious place, thousands of crosses have been erected here for centuries.

During the 19th Century it is believed the crosses were placed to honour the dead because the Tsar suppressed national identity by limiting religious expression, so families were forbidden burials in cemeteries. Many also believe there is religious significance for the location of the crosses after an apparition of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus asked the believers to cover the holy place with these icons. In the Soviet era, the hill was seen as a harmful symbol, religion remained banned and the Hill of Crosses off limits. In 1961, the entire site was destroyed and burned down and even though the Hill of Crosses was destroyed four more times and patrolled by KBG agents, each time locals risked their lives by defiantly rebuilding the site.

The art of making crosses and religious icons has remained a tradition and has been handed down through generations and is recognised by UNESCO as the cultural heritage of Lithuania, a “symbol of national and religious identity,”

The statue of Jesus is said to symbolise him worshipping in secret and reflects the time when religion was banned in Lithuania.

I arrived at the Hill of Crosses late afternoon, the low summer sun highlighted a unique spectacle in the distance, the distinctive outline of crosses perched on top a small mound glowed against the blue sky, I followed a path way that meandered its way towards the hill. It was so quiet, I was surrounded by lush green fields and no one was around just birds tweeting in the nearby trees. As I approached the site I instantly felt overwhelmed by the scale of the place, nearly 200,000 crosses have been erected at this spot in the middle of the Lithuanian countryside and all the crosses represented a personal or public misfortunes and catastrophes.

Finely carved folk-art masterpieces stood 3-4 metres above me amongst a myriad of religious symbols, including rosary beads, small crucifixes and statues embellished with names of lost loved ones. I found myself in a sea of wooden and metal crosses as I made my way through the maze of memories, a chilly breeze rustled rosary beads that dangled from religious icons and the large crosses became silhouettes as the sun slowly began to set. I felt a sense of sadness that overcame me as I ascended the wooden steps that led to a lonesome statue of the Virgin Mary, there is a unique energy that flows here, It's a powerful place you can sense why it has become a location of pilgrimage and a symbol of resistance for so many.

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