The Skull Tower of Nis

Updated on September 19, 2018
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The Republic of Serbia is located in the Balkan peninsula, in the south-eastern corner of Europe. Throughout time this region has seen numerous peoples and empires, with each leaving behind their own mark. One of the strangest monuments in Serbia is the Skull Tower of Nis. It bears witness to the last days of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and was built as a deterrent to the local people. It was meant to symbolize the power of the Ottoman Empire, and showcase the fate that would befall would-be rebels. Instead it has come be a unique cultural treasure, drawing tourists and pilgrims from across the world.

The Skull Tower of Nis

The Skull Tower of Nis
The Skull Tower of Nis


To understand why such a unique monument was built, one first has to understand the turbulent history of the Balkans and surrounding regions. The Balkans have long been at the crossroads of numerous civilizations, and often underwent turmoil and upheaval. The region has been inhabited since the Neolithic, with the modern Slavic people arriving in the region in around the 7th Century. They mixed with the local population and by the 10th century a number of small local kingdoms emerged. The zenith of the Serbian Empire occurred during the 14th century, under Tsar Dusan the Mighty. His domains spanned from the Central Balkans down to Greece, and his armies menaced the waning Byzantine Empire. Following his death, his large realm began to splinter, and his inept son was unable to control the Serbian nobles. They proceeded to carve out their own domains and the Serbian Empire splintered. On the horizon loomed a new menace, the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire. By the 15th century, the disparate Serbian lands were conquered by the Ottomans, who would rule the region for roughly 500 years.

The period of Ottoman rule was at times tranquil, as the Orthodox Christian Serbs were allowed certain rights in exchange for providing tax and soldiers for the Ottoman Sultan's army. The Christians of the Ottoman Empire were second-class subjects, but they nonetheless enjoyed certain protections, and could rise up in the imperial bureaucracy if they adopted the Islamic religion and customs of their conquerors. However, these limited prerogatives were often not enough to calm the local population, and at times the Serbs would rise up against their rulers. The Ottomans were usually quick to re-establish order, and would use terror to cow the local population. Be-headings and impalement were common punishments, but sometimes the Ottomans would get creative. For example, a failed rebellion of the Banat Serbs in 1594 prompted the Ottomans to burn the remains of Saint Sava, a holy figure in the Serbian Orthodox Church. This was a poignant reminder of who called the shots in the region.

Thus, while the period of Ottoman rule could be turbulent, it also allowed for a local set of nobility to emerge. This nobility kept the Orthodox Christian faith, but adopted certain aspects of Ottoman culture, such as the dress and weapons they used. Over time, this noble class began to prosper and assert more local control of the region. This haphazard arrangement was broken in 1804, when renegade Janissaries took over control of the Serbian populated Sanjak of Smederevo began slaughtering the leading Serbian nobles.

Ottoman Janissary

Ottoman Janissary
Ottoman Janissary

The First Serbian Uprising

The First Serbian Uprising was at first launched as a means of expelling the renegade Janissaries and re-asserting control over the Sanjak of Smederevo in the name of the Ottoman Sultan. The uprising was launched by the charismatic yet ruthless Karadjordje, a man who served in the Austrian army against the Turks and made his living trading livestock. The speed of their successes took the rebels by surprise, and they quickly decided that getting rid of the Janissaries would not be their only demand. They asked the Sultan for extra rights, such as the right of a Serbian knez (noble) to rule the Sanjak of Smederevo and collect taxes to be paid to the Ottoman Sultan. As the year dragged on, the Sultan decided to send troops to crush the uprising and reassert Ottoman control over the Sanjak. It was at this point in 1805 that the First Serbian Uprising took on the character of a war of national liberation.

The war dragged on, with the rebels receiving significant support from their countrymen in the Austrian Empire, as well as from the Russian Tsardom, the traditional enemy of the Ottomans. The Serbian rebels scored a number of notable successes, such as the Battle of Misar in 1806. That year the Russian Tsar declared war on the Ottoman Empire, further bolstering the Serbian rebels cause. By 1809, the future capital of Serbia, Belgrade, was liberated by the rebels. Karadjordje used this opportunity to issue a proclamation calling for national unity and resistance to the Ottomans. He was able to launch a successful offensive in the southern region of Novi Pazar. The Ottomans counterattacked towards Nis, a major city in the Sanjak under siege by the rebels. It was here that the fateful Battle of Cegar occurred.

Declaration of The First Serbian Uprising

Karadjordje declares the First Serbian Uprising
Karadjordje declares the First Serbian Uprising

The Battle of Cegar

The Battle of Cegar Hill took place on May 31st, 1809. The Ottoman forces outnumbered the local Serbian rebels, who were attempting to siege the fortress of Nis. They took advantage of their numerical superiority and moved to encircle the rebel force. Vojvoda Stevan Sindjelic moved his force of approximatly 2-3 thousand men to block their advance. The Ottoman troops swarmed the Serbian trenches multiple times, attempting to overwhelm the defenders with sheer numbers. As they wore down the rebel forces, Vojvoda Stevan Sindjelic realized that his men could not hold the line. Knowing that a horrible fate awated him and his men if they were captured, he decided to sacrifice the remnants of his unit in order to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy. As the Ottoman forces swarmed over their last line, Vojvoda Sindjelic ran into their gunpowder room and shot the remaining powder, causing a massive explosion. While the Battle of Cegar Hill was an Ottoman victory, it came at a high price in terms of manpower.

Vojvoda Stevan Sindjelic Blowing up his Gunpowder Room

Vojvoda Stevan Sindjelic blowing up his gunpowder room
Vojvoda Stevan Sindjelic blowing up his gunpowder room

The Skull Tower of Nis

The Ottoman commander, Hurshid Pasha, decided to have the heads of the rebels, including that of Vojvoda Sindjelic stuffed and sent to the Ottoman Sultan, in order to show his success against the rebel forces. In addition, he decided to build a 4.5 Meter tall tower and line it with 952 skulls from the dead rebels. This tower was supposed to serve as a reminder to the local population of the perils that faced those that defied the Sultan. The First Serbian Uprising was eventually crushed in 1813, but a new uprising in 1815 managed to succeed in liberating the Serbs. While still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire and under an Ottoman governor, the Serbs were allowed local leadership and autonomy. The Skull tower of Nis remained as a monument to their uprising, and by the 1860's the Ottoman governor ordered the remaining skulls to be removed, realizing that the Skull tower no longer served its purpose.

Final liberation came in 1878, when the Serbian army marched back into the region to reclaim the land. The army searched through the local towns for the original skulls, placing any they found back on the tower. They also erected a roof, in order to protect the tower from the elements. A chapel was later erected, and a plaque to commemorate the original rebels against the Ottoman Empire was installed. The Skull tower has since been renovated and restored, and today serves as a monument to the bravery of those taking part in the rebellion.

The Skull Tower of Nis

The Skull Tower of Nis
The Skull Tower of Nis


Today, The Skull Tower of Nis is a place of pilgrimage and no longer a warning sign. It bears testament to a bygone era, and as such is an important national heritage site. The Skull Tower consists of 54 skulls, all that is left of the original 952. The skull that is thought to belong to Vojvoda Stevan Sindjelic has its own desplay case, in honour of the man that sacrificed his life for the cause of liberation. The Skull tower of Nis is a must see for any tourist venturing into Eastern Serbia.

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