Skeletons of the Week, July 8: The souls in the Cele Kula, Nis, Serbia


On May 15, 1809, in Niš, Serbia, Duke Stevan Sindjelić set fire to a large ammunition dump, in the process forfeiting his own life and those of the soldiers who served under him. He had sacrificed himself and his men in order to stop the advance of an Ottoman Turkish army. In fact, he failed to stop the enemy, but the gesture was nonetheless seen as the ultimate act of patriotism, and ensured that Stevan Sindjelić would enter the ranks of Serbian national heroes–not in the least because the Turks beheaded the bodies of the dead Serbs in order to construct a large tower meant to frighten any locals and break further resistance. The tower, known as the Cele Kula, went from being a symbol of terror to being source of pride, however, and stands (albeit in highly dilapidated form) as a national memorial.

This post is not so much about the skulls in the Cele Kula, however, as it is about a man and a goose. When I visited Serbia to photograph the skull tower for the book The Empire of Death I had a chance encounter with a man named Demitrije who was walking a large white goose named Božidar on a leash. Speaking to the man about his bird, I was told something quite extraordinary: the goose was psychic, and its special power involved communing with the souls of the dead soldiers whose skulls were encased in the tower. This included no less than Stevan Sindjelić himself, and the goose bore many messages from the duke, if anyone cared to listen. Demitrije would take the bird down to the tower and stand outside (the tower is enclosed in a church, to which fowl, even those with an intimacy to the souls within, are not allowed to enter), and the bird would channel the messages to Demitrije. For his part, Demitrije insists that he had never received any message from the dead or any forms of psychic communication before acquiring Božidar.

When I informed Demitrije that I was writing a book and including in it the Cele Kula, he told me that Božidar would very much like for me to interview him, to give me the inside story about the battle itself, the construction of the tower, and the state of the souls living within it. Of course, I readily agreed, and went to Demitrije’s home. I sat in old arm chair across from the man and bird, who were next to one another on a battered Chesterfield sofa. Demitrije regaled me with accounts of the battle, channeled from the souls via the bird. When I asked questions, Demitrije would look intently at the goose, who apparently contacted the souls via the ether, and then channeled the answers back to the man. At the end, I thanked both of them for their time, and allowing me this superb insight, but I also pointed out (indeed, had pointed out all along) that I was writing a history of architecture constructed in human bone, and the Cele Kula itself was only a minor part of that study, so as fascinating as this all was, it was unlikely I would be able to use much if any of the information.

I was assured the goose understood this, and he was happy to simply have someone to relate the story to. This turned out to be untrue, however. Several months later, I got an email from Demitrije asking me how the book was coming along. I sent him a draft of the section about the Cele Kula, and received a very angry reply. Indeed, I had opted for “straight history” rather than the psychically-inspired goose revisionary history, and this had apparently upset Božidar. Among the morsels contained in the email, the goose . . . well, the goose via the man I suppose . . . told me that ” You are piece of shit. how come you not tell people the truth? . . . I am not just only Božidar talking to you but also stevan sindjelic, because we have one soul now together so you must listen to me. it is serbia that saves all europe from the asshole turks, and get credit we do not. if not for serbia soldiers whose skulls in Cele Kula rest of europe would have a fat turk with his big mustache shoved up their ass for the rest of history . . . the soldiers skulls in the tower are proud to die. tell the truth for the world or you come back to serbia, please i will show you who is boss.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what “truth” I needed to tell, but I did realize unequivocally that I was being threatened with physical assault by a goose if I were to return to Serbia. I wasn’t so worried about that, honestly, but I also felt bad about letting down poor Božidar, who apparently had put some kind of faith in me. I decided to attempt to rectify the situation. I wrote up an alternate history, and had a girl I knew at the University of Beograd place it on their website. It was entitled “The Cele Kula (Skull Tower) of Nis: From the Perspective of a Goose,” and gave a rough account in 1500 words of how the soul of the great Duke now lives inside of a humble bird, and that this should be a source of great joy and pride for people who care about liberty and patriotism. I also penned a version of the story for one of the American supermarket tabloids, which I had published under a pseudonym with the title “Secrets of the Psychic Goose of Skull Tower,” and included even a photo I had taken of Demitrije and Božidar on the street when we first met. When I forwarded all this to Demitrije, I was informed that the goose had not only been placated, but was in fact extremely pleased with me. This was a couple years ago. I have spoken to neither man nor goose since then, but in our last exchange we parted on good terms, and I no longer have to live in fear of being assaulted by a fowl if I ever return to Serbia.

The book Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, will be released Fall 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Images from the book will be featured in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and the book is available for pre-order via

book cover

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