A Macabre Monument

by Melissa Johnson

If you want to send a message to your enemy, a tower created with nearly 1,000 of their skulls is a powerful one.

In the city of Niš in Serbia looms a fifteen-foot-tall stone tower embedded with human skulls. The Skull Tower, or Ćele kula, was built after the Battle of Čegar, which was fought to liberate Niš from the Ottomans, in 1809 during the First Serbian Uprising.

During this battle, between 3,000 and 4,000 rebels under commander Stevan Sinđelić were attacked by a much larger advancing Ottoman army. Knowing they couldn’t escape, Sinđelić fired a shot into his army’s nearby gunpowder stores as a last resort. It triggered a massive explosion that killed him, his rebel army, and as many as 6,000 enemies.

Although the Ottomans won the Battle of Čegar, they were displeased with the way it ended and that so many of their own soldiers were killed. Ottoman commander Hurşhid Pasha ordered his soldiers to behead the Serbian fighters fallen at Čegar and to bring them to nearby Niš. They skinned the heads, filled the skins with straw, and sent them to the sultan in Constantinople.

Then the Turks began to build the Skull Tower. Over several days, seventeen skulls were placed in fourteen rows along the four sides using 952 rebel skulls. To fill the last row, Pasha ordered thirty Serbian captives killed and their heads built into the tower without being skinned, so their faces, frozen in death, would look down upon all who approached.

The tower was intended as a warning to anyone who would rebel against the Ottoman Empire, which by then had existed for nearly 600 years and would continue for nearly another century. All but fifty-eight skulls were later removed and interred.

After the Ottomans withdrew their forces from Niš in 1878, the Serbian government placed a roof over the tower and, twelve years later, built a chapel around it. A bust of Sinđelić was placed onsite in 1938. Ten years later, the government officially declared the Skull Tower and chapel Cultural Monuments of Exceptional Importance and has protected them since. Today, between 30,000 and 50,000 people visit the Skull Tower annually.

Rather than remain a source of terror, the tower has become a symbol of resistance and freedom.



CherylHoward.com. “5 Reasons to Visit Nis, Serbia.” Accessed July 13, 2017. http://cherylhoward.com/2017/03/29/visit-nis-serbia

Mental Floss. “10 Buildings Made with Bones.” Accessed July 13, 2017. http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/55222/10-buildings-made-bones

Strange Remains. “There is a tower made of human skulls in Serbia.” Accessed July 24, 2017. https://www.strangeremains.com/2014/01/10/a-tower-made-of-human-skulls-in-serbia

Tourism Organization of Niš. “The Skull Tower.” Accessed July 13, 2017. http://www.visitnis.com/the-skull-tower.html