The Old Jewish Cemetery is the only part of Prague's Jewish Quarter that was was left almost intact after the Sanitation process. It was established in the 15th century and worked for 300 years until Joseph II forbade burials within the city perimeter in 1787. The Cemetery has 12,000 tombstones but the number of people buried there isn't known. The uneven terrain suggests that people were buried in layers.
Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery is not the oldest one in Europe, but the biggest and the most well preserved. The two older cemeteries, in Worms from the 11th century and Frankfurt from the 14th century, were destroyed during WW2.
The cemetery was most likely established in the first half of the 15th century. The oldest tombstone of the Old Jewish Cemetery comes from 1439 and belongs to a Jewish poet Avigdor Kara, who described the worst pogrom in the history of his ghetto. The cemetery was gradually expanded throughout the 16th century due to lack of space - a common problem for Jewish ghettos around Europe. The Prague Cemetery, though, is famous for its unusual look. It is strewn with thousands of old tombstones unevenly spread on the cemetery grounds. Despite the continuous effort to expand the burial territory, eventually, the cemetery ran out of space and bodies had to be buried in layers. That explains why when you are standing next to the-New Synagogue, the wall of the cemetery is much taller than it is on the Pinkas Synagogue side.
The Jewish tradition does not allow us to carry out any excavations on the territory of the cemetery, so we can only guess how many people had been buried there over 300 years period. The only certain number we have is the number of tombstones on the Old Jewish Cemetery - 12,000! Most of them are monuments made of sandstone and marble with inscriptions in Hebrew, that tell names of the deceased, their occupation, and achievements. A lot can be determined from symbols on the gravestones, but the dates are often misleading. Some historians think that tombs were probably made by Christian stonemasons, who were not familiar with the Jewish calendar and writing, so some mistakes were made in engravings.
According to the Jewish tradition (Halacha), all burial ceremonies were executed and supervised by Chevra Kadisha, whose seat used to be located at the site of nowadays Ceremonial Hall. This building is part of the Prague Jewish Museum and has exhibitions dedicated to burial ceremonies.
The Old Jewish Cemetery was closed in 1787 when a new decree of Emperor Joseph II prohibited all cemeteries within city borders. The new cemetery was opened in nowadays Zizkov area, called Olsanske Cemetery - the biggest one in Prague. This is where Franz Kafka is buried!
There are many notable figures buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery, among them the most famous ones are:
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Author: Valeriia Zahradnikova and Vaclav Zahradnik, Prague guides certified by Prague City Tourism agency. Valeriia and Vaclav have worked in tourism for over 6 years and have guided thousands of Prague visitors.