Prague has one of the oldest recorded Jewish communities in all of Europe. Jews have lived in the city as early as the 970 C.E., and a community was well-established by the end of the 11th century. Although the Jews suffered through several periods of persecution, the Jewish community remained intact. They also influenced the culture and traditions of Prague.
Among the contributions of the community to Prague are the synagogues. These have become architectural landmarks and repositories of historical artifacts. If you were to visit Prague, set a day for the Jewish Museum tour to see these historic buildings. They are closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays but can be easily booked on other days of the week.
Staronová synagoga, Červená
Considered the oldest active synagogue in Europe, the Old-New Synagogue has held regular services since it was built at the end of the 13th century. The only period it was unable to hold religious ceremonies was during the Nazi occupation from 1942 to 1945.
The building is characterized by the cavernous spaces and ornate decorations of Gothic architecture. Its high saddle roof with brick gables and ribbed vaults magnify space. Meanwhile, wrought iron grills and antique chandeliers maintain the Gothic vibe inside the synagogue.
Since 1995, the synagogue has been a National Cultural Monument. The Holy Ark with the Torah scrolls can be found on the eastern wall of the main hall. At the back is a glass case that holds tiny light bulbs that are lit on the death anniversaries of prominent Jews. Regular services are still held here today, and it’s often where bar mitzvahs are held.
Maiselova synagoga, Maiselova 10
Built in 1592, the Maisel was once the most impressive structure in the Jewish ghetto. It was constructed during the golden era in the ghetto through a privilege given by Emperor Rudolf II. The construction was funded by Mordechai Maisel, the mayor during that time.
The synagogue was originally designed in Renaissance style with Gothic elements. It was built with 20 pillars and had three aisles in its main hall. However, it was burnt down during a fire in 1689. It was later rebuilt and modified in a Neo-Gothic style but fell in disarray during the occupation and communist era. A few years ago, it was restored and opened to the public as part of the Jewish Museum.
It now houses old Hebrew manuscripts and historical maps of the Jewish settlements in Prague. Some rare artifacts are also exhibited, along with the story of the Jews in the Bohemian Lands. At night, it’s often used as a venue for classical music concerts.
Klausová synagoga, U Starého Hřbitova 1
Another synagogue built on Mordechai Maisel’s property is the Klausen Synagogue situated near the Old Jewish Cemetery. The largest synagogue in the ghetto, it served as the community’s second main synagogue.
Klausen was built after the fire of 1689, which ravaged a vast section of the ghetto. It was built in early Baroque style and had three main parts: a chapel, a ritual spa, and a Talmudic school. The auditorium was a single-aisled hall with an intricately designed barrel vault. However, a significant part of the building was destroyed during the Nazi occupation. Although it was reconstructed in the 1990s, only the shapes of the windows kept their original design.
If you want to know more about Jewish customs and traditions, Klausen has exhibitions that focus on these.
Pinkasova synagoga, Široká 3
Pinkas was originally built as a private chapel for the Horowitz family, one of the most prominent members of the community. Completed in 1535, it was constructed simply as a narrow, single-aisle chapel. In the 17th century, the property was expanded to include a women’s gallery and a new wing.
Over the years, it was damaged a few times by flood but was reconstructed and restored. It still features a mix of Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles with a vast entranceway and painted stuccos. After the Nazi occupation, the synagogue became a memorial to the Jews who died during the persecution. More than 77,000 names of those who perished were written by hand on the synagogue walls, along with dates of birth and disappearance. Paintings by children from the Terezin concentration camp are also exhibited there today.
Španělská synagoga, Dušní 12
In the 15th century, some of the Jews who were expelled from Spain moved to Prague. They were provided a house of prayer, which was then called Old School, on the corner of Vězeňská and Dušní streets. This place was eventually replaced with a bigger building in Moorish design, now known as the Spanish Synagogue.
The neo-Renaissance structure featured interiors reminiscent of Alhambra. Its geometric patterns, gilded decors, and ornate stained-glass windows were inspired by Islamic and Spanish styles. It was also designed to produce good acoustics for choir music.
Today, it’s part of the Jewish Museum and is mainly popular for the exhibition of the History of the Jews. It shows the story of the Jewish people in Czech over the last two centuries.