Skull Tower (Serbian: Ћеле Кула, Ćele kula, pronounced [tɕel̩e kula]) is a stone structure embedded with human skulls located in Niš, Serbia. It was constructed following the Battle of Čegar of May 1809, during the First Serbian Uprising. Serbian rebels under the command of Stevan Sinđelić were attacked by the Ottomans on Čegar Hill, near Niš. Knowing that he and his fighters would be impaled if captured, Sinđelić detonated a powder magazine within the rebel entrenchment, killing himself, his fellow rebels and the encroaching Ottoman soldiers. Vizier Hurshid Pasha ordered that a tower be made from the skulls of the fallen rebels. The tower is 4.5 metres (15 ft) high, and originally contained 952 skulls embedded on four sides in 14 rows.
Detail of a tower wall
|Visitors||30,000–50,000 (in 2009)|
Following the Ottoman withdrawal from Niš in 1878, the tower was roofed over, and in 1892 a chapel was built around it. In 1937, the chapel was renovated. A bust of Sinđelić was added the following year. In 1948, Skull Tower and the chapel enclosing it were declared Cultural Monuments of Exceptional Importance and came under the protection of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. Further renovation of the chapel occurred again in 1989. As of 2013, 54 skulls remain on the tower. The one that is said to belong to Sinđelić is enclosed in a glass container. Seen as a symbol of independence by Serbs, the tower is mentioned in the writings of French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine and English travel writer Alexander William Kinglake. In the two centuries since its construction, it has become a popular tourist attraction, visited by between 30,000 and 50,000 people annually.
The Ottoman Empire was known to create tower structures from the skulls of rebel fighters in order to elicit terror among its opponents. The First Serbian Uprising against Ottoman rule erupted in February 1804, with Đorđe Petrović (Karađorđe) as its leader. On 19 May 1809, 3,000 Serbian rebels under the command of Stevan Sinđelić were attacked by the Ottomans on Čegar Hill, in Niš. The rebels were plagued by lack of coordination, largely due to the rivalry between commanders Milivoje Petrovic and Petar Dobrnjac. As a result, Sinđelić's fighters failed to receive support from the other rebel detachments. The numerically superior Ottomans lost thousands of soldiers in a number of failed attacks against the rebels, but eventually overwhelmed the Serbian lines. Knowing that he and his men would be impaled if captured, Sinđelić fired at his entrenchment's gun powder magazine, setting off a massive explosion. The resulting blast killed him and everyone else in the vicinity.
After the battle, the vizier of Niš, Hurshid Pasha, ordered that the heads of Sinđelić and his men be skinned, stuffed and sent to the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II. The skulls were then returned to Niš, where the Ottomans built Skull Tower as a warning to potential future rebels. The structure is 4.5 metres (15 ft) high. It originally consisted of 952 skulls embedded on four sides in 14 rows. The locals named it Ćele kula, from the Turkish Kelle kulesi, which means "skull tower". In the years following its construction, many skulls fell out from the tower walls, some were taken away for burial by relatives thinking they could identify the skulls of their deceased family members, and some were taken by souvenir hunters. Midhat Pasha, the last Ottoman governor of Niš, ordered that the remaining skulls be removed from the tower in the early 1860s. He realized the structure was no longer an effective means of discouraging potential rebels and only fostered resentment against the Ottomans, reminding local inhabitants of the empire's past cruelty.
After the Ottomans withdrew from Niš in 1878, the Royal Serbian Army began scouring the town and its surroundings in search of the missing skulls. Some were found buried; one was found embedded deep inside the tower walls and sent to the National Museum in Belgrade. This was followed by the construction of a roof baldachin, which was topped off with a cross. The foundations of the chapel, designed by the architect Dimitrije T. Leko, were consecrated in 1894. A plaque dedicated near the chapel in 1904 reads: "To the first Serbian liberators after Kosovo." The chapel was renovated in 1937 and a bust of Sinđelić was added the following year. In 1948, Skull Tower and the chapel enclosing it were declared Cultural Monuments of Exceptional Importance and came under the protection of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. Further renovation of the chapel occurred again in 1989. As of 2014[update], 54 skulls remain embedded in the tower walls. The one that is said to belong to Sinđelić rests in a glass container.
In the centuries following its construction, Skull Tower has become a place of Serb pilgrimage. In Serbia, and among Serbs both inside and outside the country, it is considered a symbol of the country's struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Skull Tower is one of the most visited places in Serbia, with 30,000–50,000 visitors annually. In the early 1830s, French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine wrote of the tower upon visiting Niš, which was at the time still part of the Ottoman Empire, saying:
I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble ... [R]aising my eyes to the monument, I discovered that the walls, which I supposed to be built of marble or white stone, were composed of regular rows of human skulls; these skulls bleached by the rain and sun, and cemented by a little sand and lime, formed entirely the triumphal arch which now sheltered me from the heat of the sun. In some places portions of hair were still hanging and waved, like lichen or moss, with every breath of wind. The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs. 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.
Skull Tower was also mentioned in the works of British travel writer Alexander William Kinglake, published in 1849. An exhibition at the Military Museum in Belgrade contains a replica of the tower. Prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, tens of thousands of schoolchildren from across Yugoslavia visited the original in Niš. In 2014, U.S. internet publication Mental Floss placed Skull Tower at the top of the list of "Top 10 buildings made of bones".
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