When you hear about the entire building made out of human skulls, the first thought might be the Game of Thrones, or some similar epic fantasy TV show or movie. But not if you are from Serbia, in which case you think of a surreal tower Cele-kula in Nis, that you visited at least once on a school trip. Cele-kula is an eerie tower built from human skulls, as a warning to those who disobey, during the dark times of the Ottoman rule. Hard to digest and intimidating to look at, the tower has become a national monument that symbolizes freedom, independence, and bravery.
After living for more than 400 years under the Ottoman tyranny, Serbian people used the accumulated anger and urge for the freedom to organize the First Serbian Uprising in 1804. The city of Nis was always a crucial economic and political center, having a strategically optimal position on the main road to Constantinople of that time. So, freeing it from the usurpers was the priority.
In the spring of 1809, the duke Stevan Sindjelic gathered around 4000 Serbian soldiers and bravely chose the most protruding point to fight for - the Cegar hill, 6 kilometers from the center of Nis. The attack held for several weeks due to political reasons, which gave the Ottomans enough time to receive reinforcement from all over the Balkans. All this resulted in the Ottoman army attacking first - in the misty dawn of 31st of May.
The battle lasted for the whole day, and Serbian fighters stood ground up until the late night, even though they were greatly outnumbered. In the beginning, it was just a fight with guns, trenches, and everything that follows. However, the Ottoman army kept approaching, until the soldiers were so dense on the hill, that it was impossible to use guns. Then the battle turned wild - Serbian soldiers used knives, bare hands, even teeth to fight off the enemy.
When the duke Sindjelic realized there was no turning back, he made a heroic move releasing every soldier from their vow and letting them run for their life. Their decision to stay with the leader, fight until the last breath, never having to bind in the slavery again, makes my fingers tremble as I type.
Realizing that it’s the end, the Duke decided to take as many enemies with him as he dies. He let the Ottoman army approach without much fighting, and then he blew off the entire powder magazine, bringing the quick and sure end to the life of 6000 soldiers of the Ottoman army, the remainder of his troop and himself. The explosion marked an end to the unjust and uneasy fight for freedom.
After suffocating the Serbian uprising, the brutal Ottoman rulers wanted to take revenge and punish the Serbian people for the rebellion. The Ottoman ruler of Nis ordered to the Serbs to take off the skin of their pals’ heads and fill it with cotton to be sent to Constantinople and presented as an accomplishment. He paid them 25 groats to do so. From the skulls of the fallen soldiers, they’ve built a tower - an intimidating structure four-meter-high, consisting of 952 skulls in 14 rows. The decaying heads were pointed outside of the wall, being on display to every trespasser of the main road between Nis and Constantinople.
I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble ... Raising 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. - a French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, after visiting Nis in the early 1830s
The skull tower instilled horror and great terror within the Serbs who lived in the area. Bound to Christianity, people sneaked out during the night, stole skulls of their family and friends, and buried them in the graveyard in secrecy. Until the liberation of Nis in 1878, the tower was unprotected under the open sky, which additionally added to the decay and lowering number of skulls that are present today. In 1892, with donations from all over the country, the chapel was built atop the tower, to preserve it. Today, the tower counts only 58 skulls and is considered a part of the museum in Nis, open to visitors for a symbolic price.
The emotions the skull tower gathers in me are hard to express. Inability to take a deep breath, an emphatic cramp between my throat and lungs, the interconnection between tear canals, the sense of freedom, and the sense of gratitude - and pride even. Cele-kula is powerful. Cele-kula is intense.
Maybe a French romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine described it better in his travel journal:
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.
I know all the horror behind this monument may not grant for a touristic attraction that everyone wants to visit. But if you are already in Nis, don’t miss out on this unique place, that was even listed by American magazine “Mental Floss” as the largest building made of bones in the world. Take a deep breath - it won’t be nice, but it will be rewarding, making you wonder where we are now and how we got there. Cele-kula in Nis is an important cultural heritage for Serbia, but isn’t it for the whole world as well? I mean, it was less than two hundred years ago that such a horror scenario took place in a fairly developed country, and the fight for the pure human right to freedom, that we often take for granted nowadays, resulted in building an eerie tower made of human skulls.
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