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.
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.
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…