Skull Tower

Skull Tower was built in the Serbian city of Nis two hundred years ago to scare off attackers. Almost 1000 human skulls were used in construction.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

With a name like this, Skull Tower should really belong in a book about a lost jungle tribe, or a movie with a deformed bitter warlock.

Unfortunately, though, it’s not the stuff of fiction. It is a monument to the cruel capabilities of the human race.

The year was 1809 and the setting was the city of Nis, in the southeast of Serbia.

At this point in history, the city was controlled by the Ottoman Empire but patriotic Serbians wanted their land back and there was a strong resistance movement.

One fateful day they attacked but were no match for the Ottoman forces. When the leader of the Serbian insurgency realised the battle would be lost, he fired at his gunpowder depot, blowing it up and killing himself, his men and the advancing Turks.

Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia
Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

It was an honourable sacrifice on the field of battle but what followed showed the morbid side of war at the time. The Turkish commander of Nis ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs be collected.

Each head was then skinned and the skulls were built into a tower at the entrance of the city as a warning to anyone else who dared contemplate an attack.

As a final insult, the scalps were stuffed and sent back to Constantinople to impress the Sultan.

Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

952 skulls were used to build the tower, along with small bricks and a concrete-style material. On each of the four sides, hundreds of pairs of eye sockets stared out across the land.

The white bone would have glowed in the sun, the hollows on the nose creating small black specks from a distance.

Jaws eternally agape, these men who fought so bravely for their city and shouted their battlecries were turned into a silent mouthpiece for their occupiers.

Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

Nis was liberated in 1878 and now only 58 skulls remain. Some were destroyed by the weather and many were reclaimed by families who gave their relatives more respectful resting places.

But the citizens decided to keep the tower to commemorate the battle and pay tribute to those who died.

A chapel was built around what remained to protect it from the elements.

Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia
Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

It’s become a bit of a tourist attraction in Nis – admittedly, one that is visited as frequently as any tourist site in the city, which is not very much.

On the morning I turn up, a woman from the ticket office has to walk with me to the chapel and unlock it so I can go inside.

She tells me there are quite a few visitors each day but I see little evidence of that. The woman waits outside until I am finished and then locks the door again and walks me back to the entrance.

Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

The tower of skulls that once was designed to keep people out of Nis has now become one of the things that brings people to the city.

Of course, they come in peace and not anger but it’s a strange effect that the Turks would never have considered those 200 years ago.

Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia

If those skulls still had minds inside them, what would they think about it all?

Possibly embarrassed that a visitor from across the world is taking photos of a monument to their defeat?

Or perhaps proud that centuries later that same visitor is standing in a city returned to its owners – the very thing they were fighting for – and learning more about the battle they courageously fought for their people?

9 thoughts on “Skull Tower”

  1. Wow. Jennifer’s right – it’s the kind of thing you think only exists in movies and books. Interestingly enough, the way you described her opening the chapel and locking it again as you leave sounds a lot like some experiences I’ve had here in Mongolia. It’s good that they’re able to keep it open with such infrequent visitors.

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  2. That is a grotesque act of war to be sure; skinning the heads, sending the scalps back to the Sultan and then stacking the tower with them!

    Sadly, we haven’t gotten much wiser with age as humanity advances. Still plenty of these types of war “games” going on in the modern era. Sites such as these are a stark reminder that as far as we’ve come technology-wise, in some ways we are still living in the middle ages.

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    • Very good point. These days we may think that a tower made of skulls is grotesque but I don’t think human nature has changed all that much since then. Maybe it’s done differently but, you’re right, there are still plenty of examples of cruel behaviour designed to warn potential enemies. It always saddens me to see sites that are a reminder of how awful people can be.

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  3. This site reminds me of The Killing Fields which, while not the only memorial of war and human barbarity, are the worst that I have experienced. There is, none the less, something beautiful about the chapel having been built around the monument that has been reclaimed as a symbol of, as you put it, “a city returned to its owners ‚Äď the very thing they were fighting for” and the fact that it stands as a permanent memorial to what they so bravely tried to accomplish.

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    • It’s really interesting the way that awful moments in human history have been reclaimed and turned into memorials or monuments to heroism. I guess there is always a flipside to every story – for every cruel act, there is a story of bravery or resilience.

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  4. There were quite a few visitors on the day I went. While I was there, the woman showed about 10 people through, each time locking up behind them. Not huge numbers I know, but at least people are bothering to learn a snippet of Serbian history. It’s great to have an English speaking guide there though.

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    • It’s definitely one of the highlights of Nis and I was a bit surprised it was so empty the day I went. I’m glad to hear it was a little busier when you visited. It’s so cute the way they lock it up everytime someone has been through… even though it’s only about 100 metres from their ticket office!

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