Welcome to Skull Tower. This is not a ride at Six Flags Great Adventure, it is a very important Serbian monument located in the city of Niš. Its name gives it a spooky, Halloween feel - its actual presence is a lot more unsettling. Around 50 decaying skulls, implanted in the remains of a tower. The tower used to be bigger, the skulls used to number 952. The structure used to stand in the open air and poems recount the sound of the wind whistling through the cavities, the bones shining under the moon like marble. In 1809, at the Battle of Čegar Hill, Stevan Sinđelić ignited his gun powder stock, killing himself, his remaining troops and 10,000 Turks that were about to defeat them. The Serbians honored him as a hero for not raising the white flag. The Turks, still in power, collected the Serbian skulls from the battlefield and raised this.
There are heroes and villains throughout history, with the roles often reversing depending on which side is telling you the tale. For Serbs, Skull Tower is not just a perfect, engrossing tribute to fallen heroes, it is also so strangely gruesome that the other side seems downright sadistic. Nowadays, the directions to Skull Tower (Ćele Kula) are pretty specific - walk out of town this way, turn here, go over a small walking bridge, find a simple white chapel, go inside. The street that passes in front, though, used to run from Istanbul to Belgrade to Sofia. You were going to see this thing whether you wanted to or not. The message of the tower: Don't try to oppose the Ottoman Empire. At night, families of the fallen soldiers would come to remove the skulls for proper burial. It was probably pretty successful at spooking and scaring people traveling through Niš, but the locals embraced it as a monument - a tribute. Which is why it still stands today.
Skull Tower isn't the only leftover from Turkish rule in Niš that's been redefined as a celebration of Serbian history and culture. Niš Fortress, large and restored, sits on the river Nišava. We could see through the arched Istanbul Gate, that it wasn't your average historical monument inside. All the tell-tale signs of summer weekend fun could be spotted. Umbrellas sporting ice cream brand logos were propped up over popcorn carts. Kids held balloons affixed to thin, plastic sticks and couples canoodled in fancy leisure wear. A man told us repeatedly not to take a picture of him and his pony-for-hire. We'd exhibited no interest in doing so.
The oldest Turkish building in the city is right inside. Predictably, it's a hamam, which has been turned into a traditional Serbian restaurant. Even more predictably, the restaurant's name is Hamam. We never got a good look at the inside, but all traces of the bath - which dates back to the 15th century - have been washed away. I can see why people would be saddened by the loss of the historic interior, but I can also see why preserving a symbol of Turkish culture may not be on the top of Serbian Niš's priority list. As we ate, a quartet of waiters began to play instruments and sing. They talked to each other as much as they sang, seeming to improvise most of what they were playing. A nervous teenage couple came in for a date, loosening up only when they both began to laugh at a recorder-playing drunk outside the patio entrance.
Niš was finally liberated from Ottoman rule sixty-eight years after that Battle of Čegar Hill. In 1878, it was officially part of a Serbian state once more - after about 400 years under the Turks. The city's history after that was no less bloody or turbulent. It's a little difficult to visit these landmarks that tell the tale of a time when Serbs were the little guy, the oppressed, and not have thoughts of much more recent history. In a lot of ways, Skull Tower is the perfect tourist attraction for this vibrant, pleasant city in this polarizing country: historic, dramatic, violent, important.