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Billiards and Head Chopping

The Monastery of Cetinje with Biljarda and Eagle's Crag - Copyright © by Goran Sekulic
The Monastery of Cetinje with Biljarda and Eagle's Crag

In 1838 Njegoš abandoned his priestly robes for a colourful mountain chief's costume. He had struck a medal for heroism and began to use princely rather than ecclesiastical titles. He also began the construction of a new residence after being "forced to move from room to room in order to accommodate the Saxon King Friedrich Augustus." In the wake of the visit though he was; "infuriated by German press reports highlighting the primitive character of Montenegro."

Determined to live down such insults, Njegoš involved himself closely in the planning and supervision of the twenty-five-room residence, soon to be dubbed the Biljarda after the billiard table, which he had transported from the coast on the backs of a team of strong men. But if the Biljarda, with its introduction to gentlemanly pursuits, was intended to dispel the charge of primitivism, it was perversely ill-sited: the windows of Njegoš's apartment overlooked an unfinished round tower festooned with stakes on each of which was impaled a decapitated Turkish head. For European visitors the spectacle held a grisly fascination. John Gardner Wilkinson's description of the tower as it appeared during his visit to Cetinje in 1844 is but one of many:

On a rock, immediately above the convent [Cetinje monastery], is a round tower, pierced with embrasures, but without cannon; on which I counted the heads of twenty Turks, fixed upon stakes, round the parapet, the trophies of Montenegrin victor; and below, scattered upon the rock, were the fragments of other skulls, which had fallen to pieces by [sic] time; a strange spectacle in a Christian country, in Europe, and in the vicinity of a convent and a bishop's palace. It would be in vain to expect that, in such a condition, the features could be well-preserved, or to look for the Turkish physiognomy, in these heads, many of which have been exposed for years in this position, but the face of one young man was remarkable; and the contraction of the upper lip, exposing a row of white teeth, conveyed an expression of horror, which seemed to show that he had suffered much, either from fright or pain, at the moment of death.

Wilkinson elsewhere recounts his attempt to persuade the Vladika to have the Montenegrins abandon the practice of cutting off and displaying the heads of their enemies. Njegoš immediately agreed in principle only to come up with a serious objection: the Turks would never agree to do the same thing, and in these circumstances any first move to discontinue head-taking by the Montenegrins would be construed as weakness and serve simply to invite attack.

[pp: 202, 203-204]

Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro. 2007. [C.Hurst & Co]

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