Top 10 facts about the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

While you are wandering around the streets of busy Prague, sometimes it can be a way to forget the history of this incredible place. When we see modern stores, cute cafes, wine bars, beer gardens, and other fun cultural attractions, it can be hard to remind ourselves of the thousand of years of history that this place has. But reminding ourselves of the history of the Jewish people who lived in the city of Prague is really getting a feel for what it’s like to live here, the hardships they faced, and makes you appreciate your vacation just a little bit more. 

The next time that you visit the capital city of the Czech Republic, make it a must-do to visit the incredible and emotional Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Not sure how to get here? Not sure when it first came about? Check out the top 10 facts about the Old Jewish cemetery in Prague that are sure to encourage you to visit this historical landmark during your next holiday in Europe. 

The Old Jewish Cemetery is not the first in Prague!

Lion herald on gravestone – By By Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97553

Although the name may make you think that this is the first-ever Jewish cemetery in Prague this is not the case. It is actually the second Jewish cemetery that has ever existed in Prague, with the first being called the “Jewish Garden” and is currently located in New Town. If you want to visit the first-ever cemetery, head here – and then you can check out the Old Cemetery afterward.

There are many layers in the Old Jewish Cemetery

Thousands of gravestones are crammed into the Old Jewish Cemetery – By Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10983863

What are layers – what do you mean? Basically, when it comes to burying people in the cemetery, layers started to form due to the addition of new layers of soil and lack of space. Since there is a lack of space in the city, and Jewish tradition does not allow for abolishing old games that are decrepit or not visited anymore, there have been layers created to maximize the available area. Due to this, you might even see up to 12 layers of soil in a specific area of the cemetery! You might even see groups and clusters of gravestones in the same areas, as there might have been people buried in different layers to make the most out of the limited space in the cemetery.

There are two burial monuments in the Old Jewish Cemetery

Orientation plan of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague – By By Thomazzo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3805890

When you are lying around the Old Jewish cemetery and admiring the history, keep an eye out for the two different types of burial monuments that you will find – the first is the slab of wood or stone, and the second looks more like a house. The wooden or stone slab, called the Matzevot in Hebrew, looks like a traditional gravestone that we would say today, whereas the Tumba – the house – was used many decades later. 

There are Hebrew letters on every gravestone

The Aleppo Codex – By By see en:Aleppo Codex; scanned by http://www.aleppocodex.org – http://www.aleppocodex.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9663094

When you are gazing at the various gravestones, you will see Hebrew lettering – no matter how old the gravestones are. Even though the oldest ones are very plain and do not contain many adornments or details, they will all have Hebrew letters that describe the name of the person, the birth date of the person, and the date they died or the burial date.

David Gans is buried here!

David Gans – By By The original uploader was Geof at German Wikipedia.(Original text: fot. Geof 01:44, 10. Mai 2007 (CEST)) – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3025011

Even though his name might ring a bell, if you are Jewish, chances are you’ve heard of David Gans. This mathematician, historian, and astronomer was a huge part of the history of the Czech republic and chronicled various works, such as the Tzemach David. 

The style of the tombstones changed in the 16th and 17th centuries

Slate vestige of a Jewish gravestone – By By Nikodem Nijaki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16154557

Between the 167th and 17th centuries, the styles of tombstones drastically changed. Due to the influences from Austria and other countries, you will see that the ornate tombstones were geared towards more decorations, descriptions, and images. Instead of solely Gothic tombstones that you would find beforehand, the newer tombstones would include biblical quotes, icons that described the person’s interests and life, and symbols. 

The cemetery has a lot of history

Prague in 1493 – By Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (Text: Hartmann Schedel) – Self-scanned, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=872233

Even though this may seem like a given, the Old Jewish Cemetery has a lot of history that we often tend to forget during our vacation to Prague. There are many stories of people who have gone through terrible ordeals who are now buried in the Jewish Cemetery, such as the 16th-century Renaissance, the Jews fighting against the Swedish army in the mid 17th century, and the Thirty Years War. 

But how old is the cemetery?

The Prague astronomical clock was first installed in 1410 – By Krzysiu “Jarzyna” Szymański – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2606791

Although it can be difficult to figure out just how old the Old Jewish Cemetery really is, it is typically believed that the existence of the burial ground goes back to the mid-15th century, with the first tombstone being dated as far back as 1439. 

The cemetery was actually reduced in size

Museum of Art in Prague – By VitVit – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98920739

Although we know that there are layers upon layers due to the smaller size of the cemetery and the lack of space, the cemetery was actually made even smaller during the 19th century! Since the Museum of Applied Arts was in construction, the OLd Jewish Cemetery was reduced in size -and caused more tombstones to be piled on top of one another. 

When can I visit the Old Jewish Cemetery?

Prague Collage – By Collage by Concus Cretus based on work of Moyan Brenn from Anzio, Italy (1); Jirka.h23 (2); Massimo Catarinella (3, 5); A.Savin (4); VitVit (6) – Own work; derivative work of:File:Prague (6365119737).jpg (1)File:Mrakodrapy v Praze 2018.jpg (2)File:PragueCzechRepublicMalaStranaMostecka.jpg (3)File:Prague 07-2016 View from Old Town Hall Tower img3.jpg (4)File:CharlesBridgeMalaStranaPragueCzechRepublic.jpg (5)File:Národní divadlo od jihu 4.jpg (6), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74795682

If you are going to visit the Old Jewish Cemetery during your next trip to Prague, we highly recommend it. The only piece of advice to keep in mind is to avoid going on Saturday and Jewish holidays, as the cemetery is closed. 

Enjoy your visit to this historical and beautiful commemoration of one of the biggest populations in the city of Prague and the entire country!