Our first stop on our Balkan road trip was the Serbian city of Niš (pronounced like “niche”), Serbia’s third largest city and the main city in the south. It was a brief stop and, to be honest, didn’t warrant more than that. There were some interesting parts to it, though.
First, Niš is one of the oldest cities in the Balkans. As early as the second century AD it was important enough to warrant a mention in Ptolemy’s Geography. It’s big claim to fame, though, is that in about 272 a boy who would become Constantine the Great – the first Christian Emperor and founder of Constantinople – was born there. While emperor he built a palace in Niš, the remains of which are one of the sites to see in Niš though, as Mark puts it, they are the kind of ruins that give ruins a bad name.
Later, adding to the city’s glory among historically minded Serbs, it served as the capital for Stefan Nemanja, the 12th century Grand Prince of Serbia and founder of the Nemanjić dynasty that evolved into the 14th century Serbian Empire. So yeah, there was a bit of history there.
Then there was the Tower of Skulls, about as ghoulish as that sounds. Over the centuries Niš would go back and forth between Byzantine, Ottoman, and Serbian control. In the early 19th century Serbs were fighting to free themselves from Ottoman control; they were, sadly, losing that fight. With defeat imminent a leading Serb led a kamikaze mission to kill as many Turks as he could. He and his men all died, but they killed a lot more Turks in the process. As a message to remaining Serbs the Ottoman leader had the dead soldiers beheaded, scalped, and skinned, then embedded their skulls in a tower. Of the original 952 skulls only 58 remain but interestingly it is seen today not as a warning against rebellion but as a tribute and proud monument to Serbian resistance.
That was our two days in Niš. Along with the ancient ruins and the Tower of Skulls we toured a Jewish prison used during the holocaust, just in case we were too upbeat after the Tower of Skulls. There was a nice walk along the Nišava River and some good restaurants; we remain enthralled with the good and cheap food in the region. Two days were definitely enough, though, so from here we head further south into Macedonia.