The story of the Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is a cautionary tale about power and rebellion. It is called Cela Kula in Serbian which means…”Skull Tower”.
The Serbs were far from happy being in the Ottoman Empire and they had began a rebellion in Nis which sits on the Constantinople Road running through Sofia, Bulgaria to modern day Istanbul. The 1809 rebellion was put down and the skulls of the rebels were used to build a tower as a reminder to anyone else who wanted to rise up against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II.
Here is some of the history from Wikipidia:
On May 31, 1809 on Cegar Hill a few kilometers northeast of Niš, Serbian insurrectionists suffered their greatest defeat in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804-1813). The insurrectionists’ advance towards Niš was stopped here and, when the far stronger Turkish forces attacked, the battle was ended by the Serbian commander Stevan Sineli, who sacrificially fired at his gunpowder depot in order to avoid surrendering to the Turks, killing himself, the rest of his men, and the advancing Turks.
After the retreat of the Serbian rebel army, the Turkish commander of Niš, Hursid Pasha, ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs were to be mounted on a tower to serve as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. In all, 952 skulls were included, with the skull of Sin?eli? placed at the top. The scalps from the skulls were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as proof for Sultan Mahmud II.
The tower stood in the open air until the liberation of Niš in 1878. By that time, much of the tower had deteriorated from weather conditions or from the removal of skulls for burial by relatives of killed rebels. In 1892, with donations gathered from all over Serbia, a chapel designed by the Belgrade architect Dimitrije T. Leko was built to enclose what was left of the tower. Today, only 58 skulls remain, including that of Sineli.
In front of the chapel stands the monument to Sineli, and a small relief depicting the battle, both from 1937. The monument commemorating the battle in the form of a guard tower was built in 1927 on Cegar Hill by Julian Djupon. The lower part is made out of stone from the Niš fortress.
Skull Tower was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, and it is protected by Republic of Serbia.
Like much of Serbia, I found the Skull Tower to be creepy and lacking any sort of contextual explanation – I had to search for that later. To get there I had to walk about two kilometers from the center of Nis. The ever present dog turds and tagging were constant while the sidewalks were not.
Along the way, I stopped to eat the Serbian delicacy Borek, basically a filo dough pastry stuffed with cheese or meat. It was a bit greasy, but overall pretty delicious. I bought a yogurt to wash it down while sitting in a grungy little park with some senior citizens who had no idea what to think of me joining them as they ate their boxed lunches.
At the tower, there was no signage. I walked around it, took some pictures of the external chapel, but the doors were all locked so I couldn’t get inside. By this time, the borek and yogurt had caused my bowels to become a bit upset and I needed to find a toilet so despite my desire to see the tower of skulls, I went towards a dirty little bus station nearby to see if I could find a toilet. At the bus station, the lady asked me if I wanted to see the tower. I explained that I needed a toilet first, but yes, I wanted to see it.
A tiny little dwarf of a woman came out and led me to the very dirty bathroom (which I was very happy to have access to) and after I paid her the very reasonable entrance fee of 100 Serbian Dinar, she led me to the chapel where she pulled out her huge ring of keys and unlocked three locks to let me in. She watched curiously as I snapped some photos and tried to ‘feel’ the place. It felt like I expected, creepy.
When 19th century traveler Alphonse de Lemartine visited Nis in 1833, this was his experience.
“ My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it. ”
It made me think of something – which has caused more than a few people to claim I was being disrespectful, but which was, after all, what it made me think of. The Tower of Skulls is a powerful symbol of Serbian Independence – but since I’m a child of 1970s America – the entire time I was there, I was thinking of this….