Literature, Architecture and History Intersect: the French Poet Lamartine and the Skull Tower in Niš

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It is fascinating to see how monuments (and all forms of architecture, for that matter), can stand as witnesses of values from the past, and also as reminders of great events, often terrible ones – like massacres, crimes, and wars. It is important to study these landmarks and to stop and think seriously about their significance, not just view them as tourist attractions. Last weekend I visited Niš, a beautiful city in the south of Serbia, and saw something that shocked me more than I expected: the Skull Tower – a tower made of human skulls, dating from the 19th century. It reveals an unforgettable story of human brutality and evil, but also a story of courage and honor. Of particular interest are the impressions of the 19th century French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, who wrote down his thoughts after encountering this profoundly disturbing construction. If you are interested in the magical way humanity, literature, architecture, and history intersect – keep reading.

The Skull Tower (or Ćele kula, in Serbian) was built by the Turkish army, which was in the process of suppressing the First Serbian uprising (1804-1813). Serbia fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 1459, and from that point on, the Serbian people longed to win back their independence and freedom.

The Ottomans built this monstrous construction to frighten the remaining Serbian rebels, to preserve their domination of the Serbian people. It all happened after the Battle of Čegar (1809), led by Stevan Sinđelić, the Serbian revolutionary commander. Sinđelić was the commander of around 3000 Serbian fighters. The Turks attacked them on the hill named Čegar. Badly outnumbered by the Turkish force, Sinđelić and his men faced certain death. Sinđelić made the decision to fire his pistol into the powder magazine, to avoid being executed in a shameful and degrading way by the Turks. The pistol shot caused a strong explosion that killed Sinđelić and all his courageous men, as well as some of the Turks who were closing in.

Hurshid Pasha, the Grand Vizir of Niš at the time, gave orders to decapitate the Serbian dead. After cleansing and other preparations, the heads were sent to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, almost as souvenirs. Afterwards, they were returned to Niš and made into a tower as a warning to any Serbs who were thinking about rising up against Turkish rule. The Skull Tower rose as ordered, but twenty-one years later, the Serbs managed to win their freedom once and for all.

When you enter the chapel (it was bulit by the Serbs to surround the tower in 1892), you can see a massive wall-like tower with skulls that seem almost imprinted in the masonry.

This one here is the only female skull – I heard the voice of a middle-aged man, leaning on the chapel wall. You can really spot the diference. – he said. I opened my eyes in shock, still overwhelmed with the whole construction. I gazed into the female skull, thinking about how small it looks compared to the other ones. It looks so small, as if it’s from a child – my friend beat me to say, and we both got the chills thinking about that possibility. The tower used to have 952 skulls embedded in its walls, but today it stands with just fifty-eight remaining.

In 1833, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine found himself in front of the tower and wrote down his impressions, which later became a part of a book, published in 1850, titled Travels to the East (read online here: https://archive.org/details/travelsineastinc01lama):

The skulls, bleached by the sun and the rain… completely covered the victory monument. Some of the skulls still had hair on them, which fluttered in the wind like leaves on trees….

My eyes and my heart saluted the remains of those brave men whose cut off heads made the corner stone of their homeland’s independence. May the Serbs keep the monument! It will always teach their children the value of Serbian independence, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.

Lamartine was highly involved in French politics and had an important role in founding the Second Republic. This is to be mentioned only so as to underscore his personal beliefs, which included ideals such as pacifism and democracy. It is easy to understand how moved he must have been upon seeing the tower. His words are the best testimony to that. The poet saw the monument on his way to Lebanon, Syria, and the Holy Land. He was an orientalist, and his journey to the East made a great impression on him. Given the fact that the Skull Tower he saw along the way moved him as it did, he had to make it a part of the book.

Besides this moving paragraph about the Skull Tower, Travels to the East depicts the poet’s journey and many interesting encounters with the contemporary poets of the Orient, as well as meetings with princes and rulers, and his personal struggles and thoughts about peace, religion, democracy, society and different cultures and values. Even though Lamartine was an orientalist and an admirer of the cultures of the East, in the passage about the Skull Tower we can read an implicit conclusion that evil occurs in every culture and knows no borders. Of course, evil commited by individuals shouldn’t stigmatize an entire nation or people. Nothing is to be viewed monochromatically. It is amazing to see how the poet was inspired by contemplating this unusual architectural testimony to human brutality.

The Skull Tower stands proudly as a disturbing monument to courage. Personally, I cannot look at it and simply see an artifact and just gaze upon it, as I would do in a museum or art gallery. There is much more depth in it. I can’t help thinking about every individual, about every life that once existed, about the real souls whose skulls are now seen by thousands of people every year. It was as they looked back at me and made me imagine their physical appearance, the way they laughed, the sound of their voices, their families, their everyday problems, the way they used to drink coffee or how they fell in love for the first time. Those were once real people, flesh and blood, no different from us. They died because they were driven by the ideal of freedom. Lamartine captured that in his short paragraph, in which he saluted their fight. That means something, and it is certainly worth reading.

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