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The Skull Tower of Niš, Serbia

In the city of Niš, in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, stands a macabre monument to the Serbian resistance against the Ottoman's 400-year rule. But it was built not to celebrate or commemorate the heroic sacrifices of thousands of resistance fighters who lost their lives, but to strike fear in their very hearts.

The Serbian Empire fell to the Ottomans in the late 14th century, but the writing was on the wall for a long time. The Empire was crumbling under Stefan Uroš V, whose indecisiveness and incompetence had earned him the disgraceful title of “Uros the Weak”. Internal conflicts had fragmented the empire into a number of principalities, some of which did not even nominally acknowledge his rule. At the same time, the Ottoman sultanate was gradually spreading across Asia and Europe. When the powerful Ottomans attacked, the Serbian provincial lords, too absorbed with their own enmity, offered little resistance.

Skull Tower of Niš

Photo: asiana/Shutterstock.com

The city of Niš was captured for the first time by the Ottoman Turks in 1375. The Serbs managed to get it back in 1443, but it fell again in 1448. The city changed hands a few more times between the Turks and the Austrians during the 17th and 18th centuries, but for the greater part of the next 400 years since the city fell, it was under the famously brutal Ottomans. During this era, the Serbs suffered untold misery as chronicled by travelers passing through the region. A 16th century Silesian traveler described grisly scenes of mutilated corpses littered along the route from Sofia to Niš. When he reached the gates of Niš, he saw that it was bedecked with freshly-severed heads of poor Bulgarian peasants.

The first full-scale war between the Serbians and the Ottomans took place in 1805, in the Battle of Ivankovac, where the Serbs defeated the Turks and forced them to retreat toward Niš. Stevan Sinđelić, the military commander for the revolutionaries, proved himself as a good and capable military leader and was subsequently appointed to be the Commander of the Resava Infantry Brigade.

battle of misar

Battle of Mišar, painting by Afanasij Scheloumoff, 1930s.

In 1809, a force of ten thousand Serbian rebels approached the villages south of the city of Niš, and dug six trenches. The first and the biggest one was on Čegar Hill in charge of Stevan Sinđelić. From there, the Serbs launched several attacks against the Niš Fortress, but each time they were repulsed by the numerically superior Ottomans. During the two-month-long struggle, Sinđelić and his Brigade became separated from the remainder of the Serb guerrilla positions and he and his men resisted fiercely. But when Ottoman troops began pouring into the trench where Sinđelić’s unit was trapped, Sinđelić knew there was little hope. Overwhelmed by enemies, Sinđelić pulled out his gun and fired at the powder magazine. There was a tremendous explosion that shook the ground and killed everyone inside the trench as well as in the vicinity. It is estimated that over 6,000 Ottoman troops and 3,000 Serbians perished in the Battle of Čegar Hill.

Stevan Sinđelić blowing up the powder keg.

After the battle, Grand Vizier Hurshid Pasha ordered that the heads of Sinđelić and his men be skinned, stuffed and sent to the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II. The sultan appreciated the offering, and then sent the skulls back to Niš with the instruction that a tower be built and the skulls displayed as a warning to all Serbians who dared to rebel. When constructed, the Skull Tower was 15 feet high and consisted of 952 skulls embedded on its four sides. The locals named it Ćele kula. Over the years, many skulls fell out from the tower walls, some were taken away for burial by relatives of the deceased, and some were taken by souvenir hunters.

By the 1860s, with the Ottoman’s power weakening, Midhat Pasha, the last Ottoman governor of Niš, realized that the tower was only fostering resentment against the Ottoman administration and reminding locals of the empire's past cruelty. So he ordered that the remaining skulls be removed from the tower, but he did not dare destroy it because it had become a monument, a powerful symbol of the Serbian resistance. And it still is.

Today, the Skull Tower has lost the majority of the skulls. The few that remains—around 50—are protected by a glass enclosure. The entire tower is housed inside a rather small chapel that looks like a church from the outside. The skull believed to be of Sinđelić rests in a glass container.

Skull Tower of Niš

The Skull Tower as in 1863.

Skull Tower of Niš

The Skull Tower as in 1878.

Skull Tower of Niš

The Skull Tower today. Photo: Maxim Bonte/Flickr

Skull Tower of Niš

Photo: Magalie L'Abbé/Flickr

Skull Tower of Niš

The supposed skull of Stevan Sinđelić. Photo: Pudelek/Wikimedia Commons

Skull Tower of Niš

Photo: asiana/Shutterstock.com

Skull Tower of Niš

Photo: NiglayNik/Shutterstock.com

Skull Tower of Niš

Photo: NiglayNik/Shutterstock.com

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