The Tower of Skulls

"You've never been to Nish?!" My friend was incredulous. How can someone who has traveled, it sometimes seems, every inch of Montenegro, Bosnia, and Kosovo not have found the time to go to Nish? The lady is far from being a local chauvinist, but when I first met her and asked (as I had been taught by a Belgrader) if she was "iz Nish"—leaving off the genitive ending, as they do sometimes near the Bulgarian border—she exclaimed, "Oh, those people in Belgrade. They think they know everything." In fact, as she later explained, the Nish dialect is a little strange. The accent falls forward on words, and many Turkish expressions remain within the local vernacular as a memorial to 500 years of occupation.

Why not go to Nish? Dr. Johnson's observation that every human life is worth a biography applies to cities as well. This little city in southeastern Serbia was a major stop on the route to Byzantium. Constantine's family came from Nish (or rather, Naissus), and that first Christian emperor was actually born there. It was in Nish that Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Serbian royal dynasty of the Middle Ages, met with Barbarossa, who was on his way to the Crusade. The Turks first took the city in 1385 but lost it again to the Serbs and did not reconquer it for good until 1454. When I go, I shall be able to visit the Turkish citadel built on the site of a Byzantine fort. I can...

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