A detail from a wall in the tower
|Visitation||30,000–50,000 (in 2009)|
The Skull Tower (Serbian: Ćele-kula, Ћеле-Кула, pronounced [tɕel̩e kula]) is a tower composed largely of human skulls located in the city of Niš, Serbia. During the 1809 Battle of Čegar, fought during the First Serbian Uprising, Serbian revolutionaries led by commander Stevan Sinđelić were attacked by Turkish forces on Čegar Hill, near Niš. Rather than be captured by the Turks and executed by impalement, Sinđelić fired his pistol into a powder magazine, killing himself and all Serbian rebels and Turkish soldiers in the vicinity. Afterward, Hurshid Pasha, the Turkish Grand Vizier of Niš, ordered that a tower be made from the skulls of the killed Serbian revolutionaries. Once complete, the ten-foot high Skull Tower contained 952 Serbian skulls embedded on four sides in fourteen rows.
After the Serbian re-capture of 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, with one, said to be that of Sinđelić, enclosed in a glass container. Considered a symbol of independence by ethnic Serbs, the tower has been mentioned in the writings of French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine and English travel writer Alexander W. Kinglake. In the two centuries following its construction, it has become a popular tourist attraction, visited by 30,000–50,000 people annually.
During the time of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish forces were known to create tower structures from the skulls of their enemies in order to create terror amongst their opponents. The First Serbian Uprising against Ottoman rule erupted in 1804, with Karađorđe Petrović as its leader. On 19 May 1809, 3,000 Serbian revolutionaries led by commander (Serbian: vojvoda, вoјвода) Stevan Sinđelić were attacked by a large Turkish force on Čegar Hill, located close to the city of Niš. Owing to a lack of coordination between Serb commanders, the revolutionaries failed to receive any support from other Serbian rebel detachments. Despite this, the numerically superior Turks lost thousands of troops in numerous attacks against the Serb positions. Eventually, the Serbian revolutionaries were overwhelmed and Turkish soldiers overran their positions. Not wishing for him and his men to be captured and killed by impalement, Sinđelić fired his pistol into his entrenchment's gun powder magazine. The resulting explosion killed him and all the Serb revolutionaries and Turkish soldiers in the vicinity.
After the battle, the Turkish Grand 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 Turks built Skull Tower as a warning to future generations intending to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The ten-foot high tower consisted of 952 Serbian skulls embedded on four sides in fourteen rows. In the ensuing years, 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. Following the Serbian re-capture of Niš from the Ottomans in 1878, the tower was roofed over to protect it from the elements. In 1892, a chapel designed by architect Dimitrije T. Leko was constructed over the tower with the help of donations from across Serbia. A plaque dedicated near the chapel in 1904 reads: "To the first Serbian liberators after Kosovo." 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 2014[update], 54 skulls remain on the tower, with one, said to be that of Sinđelić, resting in a glass container.
Significance and portrayal in Balkan culture
In the centuries following its construction, the tower has become a symbol of Serbian independence and a pilgrimage site for Serbs. It is considered one of the most visited places in Serbia, with 30,000–50,000 tourists visiting it 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 Parisian 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.
In 1849 British traveler Alexander W. Kinglake described Skull Tower as the building that captivated him most in all of Ottoman Serbia, saying he was impressed by the "simple grandeur of the architect's conception" and that he was struck by the "exquisite beauty of the fretwork." 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.
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