Happy Halloween! To celebrate Halloween I offer you some of the odd and scary things I have found in my travels from legendary monsters to the monsters who built concentration camps.
Tomorrow, November 1st is considered All Saints Day – it is a day when the good and righteous come back to life and assist those who are still alive. It’s an older holiday than Halloween. In ancient days, the night before this was considered an inauspicious time – the night before the saints, all manner of things dark and creepy came to haunt the earth and look for victims – especially children. To hide the children from these monsters and spirits, parents would dress them up to hide them in plain site. But that wasn’t all- the spirits and ghoulies would wander the earth looking for victims and sometimes would appear at a door – to appease them, the residents would offer treats and thus avoid the tricks of the wicked (since we all know that the wicked generally have a sweet tooth) – since the kids were disguised as goblins and ghosts too – they began to ask for the treat to avoid the trick too – thus Trick or Treat!
The story of the Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is a cautionary tale about power and rebellion. It is called Cela Kula in Serbian which means…”Skull Tower”.
The Serbs were far from happy being in the Ottoman Empire and they had began a rebellion in Nis which sits on the Constantinople Road running through Sofia, Bulgaria to modern day Istanbul. The 1809 rebellion was put down and the skulls of the rebels were used to build a tower as a reminder to anyone else who wanted to rise up against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II.
Here is some of the history from Wikipidia:
On May 31, 1809 on Cegar Hill a few kilometers northeast of Niš, Serbian insurrectionists suffered their greatest defeat in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804-1813). The insurrectionists’ advance towards Niš was stopped here and, when the far stronger Turkish forces attacked, the battle was ended by the Serbian commander Stevan Sineli, who sacrificially fired at his gunpowder depot in order to avoid surrendering to the Turks, killing himself, the rest of his men, and the advancing Turks.
After the retreat of the Serbian rebel army, the Turkish commander of Niš, Hursid Pasha, ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs were to be mounted on a tower to serve as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. In all, 952 skulls were included, with the skull of Sin?eli? placed at the top. The scalps from the skulls were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as proof for Sultan Mahmud II.
The tower stood in the open air until the liberation of Niš in 1878. By that time, much of the tower had deteriorated from weather conditions or from the removal of skulls for burial by relatives of killed rebels. In 1892, with donations gathered from all over Serbia, a chapel designed by the Belgrade architect Dimitrije T. Leko was built to enclose what was left of the tower. Today, only 58 skulls remain, including that of Sineli.
In front of the chapel stands the monument to Sineli, and a small relief depicting the battle, both from 1937. The monument commemorating the battle in the form of a guard tower was built in 1927 on Cegar Hill by Julian Djupon. The lower part is made out of stone from the Niš fortress.
Skull Tower was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, and it is protected by Republic of Serbia.
Like much of Serbia, I found the Skull Tower to be creepy and lacking any sort of contextual explanation – I had to search for that later. To get there I had to walk about two kilometers from the center of Nis. The ever present dog turds and tagging were constant while the sidewalks were not.
Along the way, I stopped to eat the Serbian delicacy Borek, basically a filo dough pastry stuffed with cheese or meat. It was a bit greasy, but overall pretty delicious. I bought a yogurt to wash it down while sitting in a grungy little park with some senior citizens who had no idea what to think of me joining them as they ate their boxed lunches.
At the tower, there was no signage. I walked around it, took some pictures of the external chapel, but the doors were all locked so I couldn’t get inside. By this time, the borek and yogurt had caused my bowels to become a bit upset and I needed to find a toilet so despite my desire to see the tower of skulls, I went towards a dirty little bus station nearby to see if I could find a toilet. At the bus station, the lady asked me if I wanted to see the tower. I explained that I needed a toilet first, but yes, I wanted to see it.
A tiny little dwarf of a woman came out and led me to the very dirty bathroom (which I was very happy to have access to) and after I paid her the very reasonable entrance fee of 100 Serbian Dinar, she led me to the chapel where she pulled out her huge ring of keys and unlocked three locks to let me in. She watched curiously as I snapped some photos and tried to ‘feel’ the place. It felt like I expected, creepy.
When 19th century traveler Alphonse de Lemartine visited Nis in 1833, this was his experience.
“ My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it. ”
It made me think of something – which has caused more than a few people to claim I was being disrespectful, but which was, after all, what it made me think of. The Tower of Skulls is a powerful symbol of Serbian Independence – but since I’m a child of 1970s America – the entire time I was there, I was thinking of this….
Here’s a fun video I put together that hits some of the video I shot on my travels during 2009-2012 in Serbia, South Korea, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, and a whole bunch of other places – I wasn’t real sure what to do with these so I proudly present to you – Vagobond Travel Dramatic. Please be sure to subscribe to my You Tube Channel. I’ve had several people ask me who the singer is that is just chilling out next to the Thames and grooving – I have no idea, but I enjoyed his impromptu show. He could be someone very famous for all I know…
Serbia in 2011 was still a very rough place to be. I’m glad I went, but it wasn’t easy. I look forward to returning to Belgrade someday. I felt as scarred as the city by the time I left – and that’s reflected in this decidedly unfair remembrance that I wrote soon after.
Belgrade is more than a gritty city filled with bad graffiti and dog turds. I know it. and while I found pockets of what seemed like paradise, for the most part, the city felt like what it is, a scarred and damaged war zone where unspeakable atrocities have taken place. Despite having the reputation of being the Paris of Eastern Europe and having the best night life of just about anywhere in Europe, the Serbians I met generally said the nightlife wasn’t so great. While I didn’t visit the many museums of Belgrade, I still did get a sense that this is a cultured place with a highly educated population. I wanted to experience that, but somehow just missed it.
From the apartment I’d been staying in, I wandered to a hostel called 1001 Nights. The owner ran a clean place with a friendly vibe. I arrived at around 8 a.m. and he offered me coffee and rakia. I accepted. Nearby was a wonderful little cafe called JazzYoga which had great jazz playing and illustrated yoga postures on the walls. The food was carefully crafted healthy vegetarian fare. These two places told me that there is certainly more to Belgrade than graffiti, dog turds, and obnoxious fans of the former regime.
In fact, as I walked around, I saw signs of cultured life just about everywhere I looked. In a city of approximately 1.7 million that has been influenced by Turks, Celts, Romans, and many others since it was founded in the 4th century there are signs of art and refinement everywhere you look…if you look past the dog turds and bad graffiti which were everywhere. One thing that was disturbing me but took me a while to figure out was the lack of diversity in Serbia. Serbs are almost 100% white. No blacks, no browns, no coffee colored, no shades other than white and often with blond hair and blue eyes. I usually live in incredibly diverse places and having no skin diversity was frankly pretty creepy. The fact that Belgrade is nicknamed “White City” and has a magazine named the same just made it creepier. Utah has more diversity.
In many ways it is like a nightmare with the stories of kidnappings, organ stealing, human slavery, bombed out buildings, ripped up streets, and utterly shitty grafitti on every possible surface. While for the most part, the Serbs I met were kind, intelligent, and gracious I had to wonder if the interior landscape is as scarred and fucked up as the exterior landscape.
I spent the day wandering through streets of the city. I strolled down the main pedestrian shopping area Knez Mihailova Street and then took a little side trip to the Bohemian cafe section. I snapped a few photos of the famous horse riding statue of Mihailo Obrenovic in Republic Square. I saw quite a few giant cathedrals and plenty of museums that I didn’t get the chance to visit because they were closed on Monday. The Temple of Saint Sava was impressive in its massiveness though only dating from about 1935 so not an ancient site by any means.
A highlight was a visit to the massive Kalemegdan Fortress which was once the cities main military fortification. These days it is the Serb version of Central Park. The park is filled with museums (closed on Mondays) and has wonderful views of the old fortifications, some interesting public art, and incredible viewpoints of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Housed within the fortress is the Belgrade Zoo. I have to say, I’ve never seen so many bizarre animals in one place before. The highlight was this massive white tiger that sat in it’s cage looking about the size of a VW bug. I’ve never seen such an impressive animal. This is the king, never mind the lion.His name is Khane and he was awe inspiring. In some cases only a small fence separated me or other visitors from the many big cats, wolves, or dangerous ostriches of the zoo. I’m certain that people have lost limbs or body parts in this zoo which is housed in an ancient fortress. I spent the better part of four hours wandering around the zoo and getting up close and personal with the animals. Because it was freaking cold, there weren’t a lot of people there. Just me, the caretakers, and a handful of others. The animals from tropical areas were inside a winter barn which was heated for them, must be a long winter since the barn wasn’t all that big judging by the number of animals inside. Think Noah’s Ark. Oddly, there was a section of the zoo that seemed to be all domestic dogs put in zoo cages. I wonder if they were wild dogs caught amongst the dangerous packs in the city. The man at the hostel told me that people are killed by dogs on a regular basis in Belgrade. Seems like a big problem.
I enjoyed my day of wandering around in Belgrade though I have to admit that I’d been feeling a vague sense of unease since I had arrived in Serbia. It’s a little hard to describe, but suffice to say that I have felt the same thing in the United States, in particular after coming back to the USA from places like Canada. I kept looking over my shoulder. I wasn’t really looking for dogs, though that might have been part of it. It was more like I felt like I was being watched. I felt completely observed, just as in the United States. In the USA these days, if you look around you will find a camera, someone is watching you and chances are there is someone with a gun not too far from wherever you might be (FBI, CIA, DEA, Park Rangers, Forest Service, City Police, State Police, Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, Federal Marshals etc etc etc). Serbia feels the same way.
Later, when I returned to the hostel I asked the owner what the sign that was flashing outside my window was for. To my surprise, he told me it was for a laundry. Sex is used to advertise everything in Serbia it seems.
Travel is about seeing things that broaden your experience. Both good and bad. I’ve never had any desire to see a Nazi Concentration Camp as either a victim or a tourist, but back in 2011 I was in Nis, Serbia when I found out that there was a concentration camp nearby, I decided it was important to visit. I’m glad that I went. It was powerful and important.
The camp was called the Red Cross Concentration Camp (Crveni Krst in Serbian) which sent a very mixed message. It was a strange contrast sort of like the interactions I had with most of the Serbians I met. I never really got the sense that they hated me, but in their rhetoric I sometimes heard a blind hatred of my country that included me and that, was most certainly not something that could be ignored.
To get to the camp, I had to walk out of Nis and into the surrounding countryside. It was cold in either direction and the scenery was like a depressing Soviet era film all about life in the Gulag. Knowing I was heading to a concentration camp probably didn’t do anything to raise my level of happiness, still, I was curious what it would be like. As I got closer, I felt a cold wind not just blowing outside the walls of the camp but also blowing inside of me as I thought about the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
The camp was built by the Nazis during the occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II. Coming closer and seeing the swastica, barbed wire, and guard tower- I felt chills as I thought of the way human beings are able to kill each other. I’ve talked with killers before and they say it becomes easier each time and soon, it’s like just about anything else. Interestingly, butchers or hunters say the same thing. Incredibly disturbing.
I walked in and was ignored by everyone there (about five people). I went to the ticket office, but no one was there so I walked around. It felt sort of surreal to be buying a ticket to a concentration camp anyway. I found some maintenance guys and a pretty Serbian girl eating some borek and I sort of shrugged my shoulders as in “Hey, am I suppossed to pay someone or something?” The girl came over and in halting English told me “Just go in, pay ticket later.”
So, I went in. Inside I found three American Missionaries from Missouri. A husband and wife who are missionaries in Macedonia and the wife’s father, a retired Army pastor. The lady who sold tickets was giving a tour and the American missionary woman was translating.
It turns out that this particular concentration camp was the site of a story that was actually sort of uplifting. In 1942 an armed revolt led to the largest escape from any concentration camp. The escapees were mostly not Jewish but partisan fighters. Thinking back, my American education seems to have populated the camps with nothing but Jews like Anne Franke. By no means do I mean to say that this was not a triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. These were partisan fighters. They were communist guerrillas from Josip Broz Tito’s movement who were captured by German forces during the Battle of Kozara. The escape was immortalized in a film by Miomir Stamenkovic called Lager Nis (another name for the camp) in 1987. It turns out that 100 out of 150 escaped, the other fifty were killed in the barbed wire by machine guns. On the upper floor a touching display of artwork by local schoolchildren had more than a few dead bodies in the wire along with mass graves and other horrors.
Of the 30,000 people who went through this camp, it’s estimated that 12,000 of them were executed at nearby Bubanj. Many of the others (especially those who were Jew or Gypsy) were sent to the other death camps and so probably perished as well. This camp was mostly filled with Serbian communists.On the top of three levels, were the solitary confinement cells. There were lists of who had occupied each particular cell and when. In some of the cells graffiti carved or scrawled by the prisoners is covered by plexiglass in order to preserve them for the future.
On the floor of some of the cells barbed wire lay stretched out of frames. When I asked why it was there the ticket lady told us that prisoners were made to sleep on the barbed wire as a punishment. Apparently solitary by itself was not enough.
After wandering around in the cold, dark, damp building and trying to imagine what it had been like, I went outside and paid the ticket lady. The price was only 120 Serb Dinars (less than a dollar) and the proceeds go towards preserving the museum. As I left, I felt just one thing…an urge to get away.