A detail from a wall in the tower
|Visitors||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 (part of the Serbian Revolution, 1804–1817), Serbian revolutionaries under Stevan Sinđelić were attacked by Turkish forces on Čegar Hill, near Niš. Rather than be captured by the Turks and impaled, 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 vizier of Niš, ordered that a tower be made from the skulls of the killed Serbian revolutionaries. The tower is 10 feet (3.0 m) high, and originally contained 952 skulls embedded on four sides in fourteen rows.
Following the Turkish 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 following its construction it has become a popular tourist attraction, visited by between 30,000 and 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 (part of the Serbian Revolution, 1804–1817) 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. The numerically superior Turks lost thousands of troops in numerous attacks against the Serbs, but eventually overwhelmed the Serbian lines. Knowing that he and his men risked impalement if captured, Sinđelić took his flintlock and fired at his entrenchment's gun powder magazine. The resulting explosion killed him, and all the surviving Serb revolutionaries and Turkish soldiers in the vicinity.
After the battle, the Turkish 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 tower stands 10 feet (3.0 m) high, and originally consisted of 952 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. Once the Ottomans withdrew from Niš in 1878, the tower was roofed over to protect it from the elements. In 1892, a chapel designed by the architect Dimitrije Leko was built over the tower with donations from across Serbia. 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 on the tower, and the one that is said to belong to Sinđelić rests 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 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.
In 1849 British traveler Alexander William 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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