Read, Write, Run, Roam

Freaky Friday: the Tower of Skulls in Niš, Serbia


Many months ago, Muz had a conference in Niš. Naturally, I demanded to tag along to Serbia’s third-largest city (or second-largest, depending on who you’re talking to). Niš has all the “typical” makings of a Serbian city: a riverbank, fortress, pedestrian avenue and bohemian quarter. It also has a most atypical monument: the Tower of Skulls.

The tower, also known as Ćele Kula, was built after an 1809 battle between Serbians and Ottomans. At the time, revolutionary Serbs from the North sought to liberate Niš from Ottoman rule. Serbian Commander Stevan Sinđelić was losing a battle against the larger, more powerful Ottoman forces when he carried out his sacrificial plan to blow up the gunpowder depot. The explosion killed 3,000 Serbs and 6,000 Ottomans. Enraged at his losses, the Ottoman commander ordered the heads of Serbian soldiers to be removed. Some were sent to the Sultan, and 952 others were used to adorn a tower. Surviving Serbians were forced to build the tower as a warning for anyone who defied the Ottoman Empire.

Creepy AND historic? I was hooked. I arranged to go there with Muz’s Serbian colleague, who I’ll call Vodič (guide). The tower is now housed in a building for its protection, which makes it look almost quaint. I had no idea what to expect. Vodič said I’d have to see it for myself.


As we bought tickets, I wondered if it would look like something out of an Indiana Jones move or an old Bones episode. But this was no movie prop.

Many skulls were looted or destroyed over the years

Frankly, it was upsetting. I consider myself to be somewhat hardened against gruesome things, but I had not expected this. I know what you’re thinking: RHOB, it’s literally called the Tower of Skulls. What did you expect? Yet hearing the words and seeing the tower are two different things. I kept thinking about the horror these men had endured, and the terror of the Serbians who had to build the tower. Maybe I couldn’t hack it on Bones after all. Well, that and the fact that I have zero science background.

Sorry, guys

The woman who took our tickets accompanied us to the tower and gave us a short history lesson in Serbian. She didn’t speak any English, but Vodič translated what I couldn’t understand. She then showed us the case that (supposedly) holds the skull of Commander Sinđelić. His skull was rumored to be at the top of the tower, but I read that it was given to the Sultan.

A long back-and-forth began between Vodič and our tour guide. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but watched in complete fascination as he leaned his head to the bottom of the glass case and took a long sniff. After that he hurried us out of there. I think he knew I was going to ask a lot of questions. And I did. “What was that? Why were you smelling it? What was she talking about?”

Apparently, there is a belief that Commander Sinđelić is due for sainthood. There’s also a belief that the remains of a saint give off a particularly sweet odor. The tour guide insisted my friend smell the skull, and he hustled me out of there before she made me do the same.

“Did it smell like anything?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I just wanted to get you out of there,” he said. Sigh. Serbian men can be very chivalrous, but obviously he didn’t know that American women are straight-up nosy. “I would have smelled it!” I said. He gave me a look I’ve come to learn very well: the seriously, American women are weirdos look.

I guess I had adjusted to being around all those skulls fairly quickly. I wonder if Bones producers want create a new show starring a Serbian housewife…


4 responses

  1. Marjan

    Told you that is an Awesome thing to see.
    I hope you’ve liked the experience. Definitely unique thing, isn’t it?
    There are way more things in Nis to see, too bad you didn’t.

    August 4, 2011 at 4:20 am

  2. Loved it. I did see the bohemian quarter, the fortress, and had “the train,” but I’ll save those memories for future posts. Thanks for the tips!

    August 5, 2011 at 6:46 am

  3. VP

    If your travels ever take you to the Czech Republic, you should visit Kutná Hora and the Sedlec Ossuary (“kostnice Sedlec”). To quote Wikipedia for a moment, “The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, many of whom have had their bones artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.” It’s quite a sight, though Kutná Hora is interesting throughout.

    As for Serbia, the “Ćele kula” in Niš is not the only such structure, though it’s certainly the most famous. The one I know about is in Dimitrovgrad (border town close to the Bulgarian border) on a hill overlooking the town. I’ve never actually visited, but it’s supposed to house the remains of Serbian and Bulgarian soldiers from the Balkan Wars (or maybe the First World War?); the point behind the joint burial being “in death, we’re all the same”. I’m sure you’ll find someone to impress with this random bit of trivia, even if you never do visit! 🙂

    August 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

  4. It’s funny you should write this. I just came back from CR and I went to the Ossuary on two other reader recommendations! (I’m starting to wonder what impression I give online…) I was amazing. I haven’t heard of the one by Dimitrovgrad but I hope to check it out. Thanks!

    August 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

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