The Skull-tower was built after the battle that took place at the hill Cegar in 1809, by the right-hand side of the busy civil and military road to Istanbul.
With these skulls, built in the sides of a cubical structure, the Turks wanted to frighten the Serbia and to prevent any other rebellion for national liberation and political independence.
At the beginning of the 19th century, fighting against the Turks, the Serbs started a long and an uneven battle for liberation. Fights with the Turks became more and more frequent, and soon they turned into a general rebellion and an all-out uprising of the Serbs.
After the great victory over the Turks at Ivankovac in 1805, Misar and Deligrad in 1806, the rebels prepared a general strategic attack in order to enlarge the liberated territory and to liberate all the other parts of the country that were still under the Turkish rule.
The rebels had to attack the Turks in four directions: Milenko Stojkovic, the duke, had to go towards the east, in the direction of Vidin (now a town in Bulgaria); the duke Sima Markovic had to cross the River Drina and go to Bosnia; Karadjordje towards the south-west, in the direction of Novi Pazar, in order to meet the Montenegrin army; and Miloje Petrovic, was sent towards the south, to Nis.
The rebels considered the southern front to be the most important so they sent the majority of the military effective towards Nis, which was a significant strategic and commercial centre, strongly fortified, often used at that time as a starting point for the Turkish attacks against free territories and as a sanctuary after the attacks (in 1805, Hafiz pasha and Ibrahim pasha launched their attacks towards Ivankovac and Deligrad from Nis).
The territory to the north of Nis became a battlefield in 1809 when the army of the rebels concentrated their forces there.
The rebels had started from Deligrad towards Nis in mid-April, and by the 21st April 1809 they occupied the positions in the vicinity of the village Kamenica, six kilometres to the north-east of Nis.
There were 18,000 soldiers led by the famous dukes: Petar Dobrnjac, Stevan Sindjelic, Hajduk Veljko, Ilija Barjaktarevic, and others.
At Kamenica a War Council was held, military actions were discussed and the members of the Council had two different plans: by the first one, Nis had to be attacked at once; while by the other, the Serbian army had to wait and to fortify their positions.
A discord among the dukes showed up for the first time, and it resulted in a wrong decision: the Serbian army started digging the trenches and fortifying their positions, instead of an instant attack.
The front line was between the village Matevac and the Komren valley. The forces of the rebels were in the trenches.
The most advanced post at the hill Cegar (in Turkish its name means “a path”) was held by Stevan Sindjelic, the duke of Resava, and 3,000 infantrymen.
Ilija Barjaktarevic held the right side of the Serbian positions, Miloje Petrovic was in the centre, at Ravaniste, and Hajduk Veljko on the left, at Beli breg.
Two thousand infantrymen, let by Paulj Matejic, were at Temeni vrh, towards the north of the position held by Miloje Petrovic.
The Turkish army was under the command of Hurshid pasha. Their infantry and artillery were in the fortress of Nis and on the hill Vinik, while the cavalry was between Nis and Niska Banja.
At the time the majority of the Turkish army was on the Danube, fighting against the Russians.
As the Danube flooded the surrounding territory, it was impossible for the Russians to cross the river. This enabled the Turks to send their soldiers towards Nis, and on the eve preceding the battle they had over 36,000 soldiers there.
In order to gain time while waiting for all the reserve of their troops to come, the Turks launched constant small attacks against the advanced Serbian posts. The rebels endured all the attacks successfully.
It was quite obvious then that the Serbian army had already lost the most convenient time for the attack by postponing it. Only 10,000 Turks were in the fortress when the Serbs started fortifying their positions.
Before the battle at Cegar the Turks sent their soldiers towards Knjazevac and defeated Hajduk Veljko and a part of Serbian cavalry that was sent to defend Knjazevac.
This strategic manoeuvre of the Turks further weakened the positions of the Serbian army on the eve preceding the battle.
The final and most important attack took place on 19th May (new calendar, the 31st May) 1809.
The attack of the Turkish cavalry went from Donja Vrezina towards Matejevac and farther, towards Cegar. The attack was really fierce, and in fact was a continuous attack that never weakened despite numerous casualties. At last, however, the Turks rushed into the trenches as well. The soldiers of the two armies fought face to face, turning the trenches into a bloody battlefield. Stevan Sindjelic, the duke, the hero of Resava, seeing the superiority of the Turks and the hopelessness of the situation, went down into the ammunition dump and set the gun powder on fire by his pistol, causing an explosion of such massive proportions that it shook the surrounding hills, was seen and heard from afar, and killed all the soldiers in the trenches and nearby, both the Serbs and the Turks.
The truth is that when the Turks first attacked the trench held by the soldiers from Resava the Serbian soldiers from the other positions wanted to help then out, but the duke Miloje Petrovic ordered then to hold their positions and wait. Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, a contemporary of the battle, wrote about it as follows:
“The Turks rushed into the trenches of the soldiers from Resava who fought bravely. Some of the Turks fell in the battle and those who stayed alive rushed again over the bodies of the felled and the dying ones, and when the trenches were full of bodies they rushed again, and again, attacking the Serbian soldiers with guns, sabres, knives, and they fought back, even bare-handed, catching one another by their throats ….. All the soldiers from Resava, who were said to be about 3,000, were killed in the battle.”
The discord among the Serbian dukes undermined the fighting spirit of the Serbian army and deranged the unity of their actions. At the same time, the favourable situation at the Turkish-Russian frontline enabled the Turks to send their soldiers to Nis and grossly enlarge their effective forces on the eve of the battle. Under such circumstances the defeat of the Serbian army was inevitable. After the defeat at Cegar, the rest of the Serbian army went towards Deligrad and during their retreat they suffered much from the Turkish cavalry as well. The total estimated casualties counted about 4,000 Serbian soldiers and 10,000 Turkish ones. Having defeated the Serbian army at Cegar, the Turks organised a punitive expedition through the valley of the River Juzna Morava, which marked the beginning of the terrible catastrophe which the Serbs had to suffer as a revenge for their uprising and rebellion.
At Cegar, where Stevan Sindjelic, the duke of Resava, was killed with all his soldiers, a monument was built soon after the liberation of Nis, in 1878. There is an inscription of the monument, that reads: “To Stevan Sindjelic and his immortal soldiers who, attacking Nis, fell in the battle gloriously on the 19th May 1809.” Much later, almost a hundred years later, in 1927, an imposing tower was built there.
After the battle at Cegar, wishing to take revenge for the great loss in soldiers and to destroy the rebellious spirit of the Serbs by terror, the Turks desecrated the bodies of the Serbian soldiers by decapitating them.
The heads were skinned, filled with cotton by well-paid furies and sent to Istanbul as a war trophy. The Turkish sultan thought it was not enough, however: he ordered that the skulls be brought back to Nis and built into a tower by a busy road for everybody to see and consider.
And the Skull-tower rose: a cubical structure, three metres high. Each side consisted of fourteen rows of seventeen openings. The skulls were positioned face-out and originally there were 952 of them. They were mounted on all four sides of the tower by the use of mortar. Some of the skulls fell out, some were lost, some were taken by the people and buried properly. About sixty of them remained to the present day.
At first the Skull-tower was not covered. It was exposed to the ever changing weather conditions. After the liberation of Nis in 1878 it was covered and surrounded by a fence. In 1892, a chapel was built and the Tower was placed in its midst.
Since it was built, many travellers have seen it and expressed their impressions of it. Some openly accused the Turks for their barbarism, some expressed their sympathy for the Serbs and their strive to live free. For instance, having seen the monument, the French poet Alfons de Lamartin left the Serbs a message:
“Let them preserve this monument! It will teach their children in the times to come how valuable freedom was to their forefathers and will serve as a constant reminder of the price that was paid for it.”
Mithad pasha (1861-1866) wanted to destroy the tower in order to clear away the barbarous traces of his predecessors. In not doing so, the Turks in Nis did a great favour to the Serbian nation: the monument stands and serves to its purpose. It was built in order to frighten the rebellious Serbs and other peoples on the Balkan peninsula, but it only helped them endure the hard times. And it has always been – a reminder …..
National Museum Nis 2002
Kosovo is Serbia