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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?