The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and one of the world’s surviving ancient Jewish burial grounds. Throughout the centuries, the cemetery’s land coverage grew through the purchase of nearby plots. But the space still wasn’t big enough, being the only burial place in the area. As Jewish custom forbids the transfer of graves, residents decided to bury their loved ones’ remains on top of each other.
Up to 100,000 bodies are believed to have been buried up to 12 layers deep in the ground beneath 12,000 tombstones. This explains why the cemetery looks like a jumble of old tombstones densely and unevenly spread on the grounds. It’s considered a part of the Prague Jewish Museum complex, which also includes six synagogues.
The cemetery dates back to the first half of the 15th century, with the oldest preserved tombstone belonging to Jewish rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara, who died in 1439. In 1784, Emperor Joseph II issued a decree prohibiting the operation of cemeteries within the city’s borders, particularly in residential areas, due to health risks. This forced the cemetery to close, although the last of the gravestones set up here bear the year 1787.
Shortly after the Nazis occupied then Czechoslovakia in 1939, synagogues and other historical sites were destroyed but the cemetery and the Jewish Museum’s artifact collection were untouched. The Nazis had reportedly preserved these two locations on purpose amid plans to put up a “Museum of an Extinct Race” in Prague, which didn’t materialize.
Among the prominent local personalities buried here is 16th-century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. He’s best known for creating a golem or mud figure, which he reportedly summoned to life to seek protection for the local Jewish community against anti-Semitic attacks. Also laid to rest here is Rabbi Mordechai Maisel (1528-1601), an entrepreneur and influential former mayor of the Prague Jewish Quarter. Emperor Rudolf II granted him special privileges for financing his troops during his wars against the Turks.
Headstone Designs and Their Meaning
The headstones of Jews laid to rest at the cemetery during the 16th and 17th centuries feature symbols carved in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. The designs indicate the religious status of the deceased—those with two hands belonged to the family of temple priests. Gravestones with a water kettle or musical instruments meant the deceased were helpers of the priestly Levi tribe.
The engravings also stood for family names—Rabbi Loew’s marker has a lion while that of historian David Gans contains the Star of David and a goose. The motifs also represented professions such as a book for a cantor, a mortar for a pharmacist, and a pair of scissors for a tailor.
Sanitization of the Jewish Quarter
Jews who migrated to Prague from other parts of Europe since the 10th century were forced to settle within a walled section of the city from the 12th century due to pogroms or violent riots aimed to expel them from the country’s capital.
Members of the Jewish community went through seasons of persecution and favor from European leaders between the 15th and 16th centuries. This “Jewish ghetto”—found between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River—survived a plague in 1680, the fires of 1689 and 1754, and the expulsion order of then Queen Maria Theresa of Austria in 1744.
Restrictions toward the Jews eased from Joseph II’s rule from 1780 to 1790. In 1852, they were allowed to live outside the ghetto and purchase their own land. By then, the Jews numbered over 10,000. The area was renamed Josefov, which is also the Jewish Quarter’s current name.
But by this time, the area was crowded with slum dwellers. A sanitation act was signed in the 1890s to turn Josefov into a residential-commercial district. With city administrators redesigning road networks, the Jewish community had to give up part of the cemetery when clearance activities began. Remains were exhumed and transferred to the Nefel mound fronting the Klausen Synagogue. But other than that, the rest of the cemetery was among the historical locations that were spared from demolition.
How to Get There
As the cemetery belongs to the museum complex, visitors have to purchase tickets at the Spanish Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, or the Pinkas Synagogue to enter. The Jewish Museum is a five-minute walk from the Jan Palach Square at the Old Town, where many walking tours of the Jewish Quarter begin. It’s is also a short walk from the Prague Main Railway Station’s Staroměstská stop and Charles Bridge.
More information about ticket prices, opening hours (which change seasonally), and group tour protocols are available on the Jewish Museum in Prague website.