July 20, 2020

A tower built of Human Skulls. Niš

The Ottoman Empire was not renowned for being kind and gentle to its subjects, particularly those from lands it had invaded. Fear was a weapon used to maintain control and punish those that stood up to the caliphate. When the Serbians rose up against the foreign invaders in 1809, the revolt was quickly crushed and a gruesome reminder of the fate that awaited those who rebelled was built in Niš, a tower built of skulls.

The Ottoman Empire stretched across Asia, Europe and North Africa in its heyday, Serbia had been defeated in the late 15th century and had remained reluctant members of the empire, prone to revolt and seeking ways of regaining its independence.

In 1809, as part of what is now called the First Serbian Uprising, a huge battle took place at Cegar, near Niš. A lack of organisation, and an overwhelming Ottoman force, resulted in a massive defeat for the rebels.

Realising the hopelessness of their situation, and fearing their immediate impalement, a common punishment for those defeated by the Ottoman army, their commander Steven Sindelic set off a massive suicide bomb as the small force was overrun. Using his musket he fired upon the rebels own gunpowder and ammunition store, killing his own force and large numbers of the enemy.

The local Governor, Hurshid Pasha, angered by the substantial losses of the Ottoman forces, ordered the heads of the rebels to be skinned and built into a gruesome tower to warn against future revolts. The use of Skull towers was not unusual in the Ottoman Empire, but the one at Niš is the only one that still survives.

The tower was built 4.5 metres (15 feet) high out of basic cement and skulls. 14 rows of 17 skulls on each of the four sides. Nearing completion the builders realised they did not have enough skulls to complete in, so thirty captive Serbians were beheaded and their skulls used to finish the tower with 952 skulls in total.

In 1833, the French poet Lamartine, saw the tower on his travels and was horrified by what he saw. In one of the first recorded descriptions of the Skull Tower, albeit with some exaggeration of its size. He wrote:

"One mile before the city I saw a wide white tower rising in the midst of the plain, glittering as parish marble. A path led me towards it; I came closer and after giving a Turkish child who accompanied me to hold my horse, I set in the shades of the tower to take a rest. 

As I set down, I raised my head and looked at the monument in which shade I was sitting in, and I saw its walls for which it seemed to me to be made of marble or white stone to be actually made of layers of human skulls.

A contemporary view of the Skull Tower from the time of Lamartine
These skulls and those faces pealed and white of rain and sunlight; there could have been fifteen to twenty thousand joined with a little bit of plaster, shaping a perfect arch that hid me from the sun; and some of which still had hair fluttering down their necks as some kind of lichen or moss. A strong and fresh breeze blew from the mountains and by blowing through numerous holes on these heads, faces and skulls, created a piteous and sad whistling".

Initially, the grisly tower did subdue any local thoughts of revolt, but over time it became a rallying point for their struggle, which prevented it from being pulled down. After Serbian independence, a chapel was built over the top of the tower to preserve it.

It is a macabre place to visit, although only 59 Skulls now remain. Others fell out, were stolen, or were reclaimed by relatives, although how they recognised which skull belonged to their family is up for some conjecture.

A small group of school children were visiting when I arrived early one morning, laughing and playing outside, waiting with me for the lady curator to unlock the building as she had been delayed by a bicycle puncture.

Once inside they were stunned to silence and low whispers. A few had to leave. The Ottoman Empire knew how to shock, even if, as in Niš, it eventually worked against the vast empire and contributed to its downfall.

The tower is open every day except Monday, entrance is approx US$2.

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