At the fringes of Western Europe lies the Balkan peninsula, a region that has seen much violence throughout the centuries. During the middle ages and the early modern period, the kingdoms of this region were used by European powers as buffer states against the threat of the expanding Ottoman empire. Known for its well preserved fortress, long history and many memorials of its violent past, “Cele Kula”, or the “Tower of Skulls”, still serves as a reminder of the brutal age of imperialism.
Being a medieval kingdom, Serbia established itself as an empire in 1346 covering most of the north western Balkans. The empire didn’t last long, and was soon fragmented by the surrounding super powers of that time, namely the Hungarian, Austrian, and Ottoman empires. After nearly three centuries of Ottoman rule, Serbia eventually gained independence in 1830 after two successful revolts in 1810 and 1815.
Leading up to this event, however, were several failed uprisings that represented the sentiment of the occupied people, and nationalism further intensified discontent. In 1809, Stevan Sindelic, a Serbian revolutionary, led a rebellion in the city Nis, adding fuel to the First Serbian Uprising that went on between 1804 and 1813. Unfortunately for Sindelic and his few hundred rebels, they were swiftly defeated by the Ottoman army of 36,000. However, it was the manner in which Sindelic and his rebels went down that was extraordinary; as the Ottoman soldiers began flooding the trenches, the revolutionary aimed his gun and fired at a gunpowder keg, blowing up his own army as well as approximately 6000 Ottoman soldiers.
Though victorious, it was a heavy blow to the Ottoman army. In order to prevent further rebellious acts and to serve as a warning, the Sultan ordered the bodies of the soldiers to be mutilated, their skulls removed and built into a tower alongside the road to Nis. In total, 952 skulls were placed in neat rows and columns among the brickwork of the tower, and at the top laid the skull of Stevan Sindelic himself.
What was supposed to stifle further rebellious acts, however, ended up backfiring; more people rallied to Sindelic’s cause and fought their occupiers. Ten years after gaining independence and having to endure the sight of their relatives’ heads being used as building blocks, the families of the victims removed many of the skulls from the tower and gave them a proper burial. Unfortunately, not every family was able to remove their loved ones’ skull from the site.
Today, the tower remains with about 58 skulls still embedded in the brickwork. To avoid having a grim reminder of the atrocities committed by the Ottoman empire and honor the Serbs who followed Sindelic into battle, a chapel was built around the tower in 1892. Nowadays, the chapel serves as a holy site to honor the martyrs of the Serbian nation as well as a museum of the First Serbian Uprising.
While the practice of beheading and defaming an enemy’s body was not uncommon in the middle ages, it is rather surprising to learn that something like this happened only about 200 years ago. It is a reminder not only of the bravery of Serbian patriots, but of the brutality of the not too distant age of imperialism. It also serves as a testimony to the dehumanization that humans are capable of inflicting on one another and that the ghosts of the past still roam to this day.
Logan Hulsey is an American student taking part in the CEERES program at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. His dissertation research will be focused on religious and linguistic minority groups in the Republic of Georgia. Additionally, Logan spent 2.5 years in Moldova with the Peace Corps, where he devoted an extensive amount of time studying Russian and traveling around the Eastern European region.