Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Old Jewish Cemetery - Prague

The Old Jewish Cemetery is located in the Jewish Quarter of Old Town Prague and was in use for at least 350 years. It is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Although it is the oldest preserved Jewish cemetery, there are two older Jewish cemeteries in Prague that pre-dated this one. It is believed this cemetery was established in the early 1400s, but the oldest tombstone is of Avigdor Kara, a rabbi and poet, dated 1439. The last burial took place in 1787, when Joseph II prohibited burials within inhabited parts of town.  
As with all cemeteries, many of the tombstones are nondescript, but many of them display much personality.

I wish I could read this. Why are the small rocks lying on top?

A nondescript tombstone: no writing, on its corner and nestled into some tree roots.
Jewish law forbids destroying Jewish graves, including the removal of a tombstone. So, as the cemetery ran out of space and was not able to purchase more ground, layers of soil were placed on existing graves. Older tombstones were elevated to the higher level, but may tombstones fell in the lower layers and many wooden tombstones were destroyed over time. The result is approximately 12,000 visible tombstones and an estimated 100,000 burials. Bodies are buried 12 deep in some areas and tombstones from different centuries sit right next to each other. 
View of the cemetery from street level. You get an idea how deep the graves go.
Many tombstones stand erect, many are leaning to the side or front or back and some are toppled over.

In some areas the dirt is red and nothing grows. In other areas the ground is covered with green ground cover.

Many tombstones contain traditional Jewish symbols, such as a bunch of grapes, representing fertility and wisdom, a moneybox, representing charity, and the hexagram star of David. Blessing hands marks the descendants of temple priests, a kettle of water or musical instrument marks the descendants of helpers from the Levite tribe and symbols of animals, such as a lion, wolf, goose or rooster indicate personal or family names. Occupations are also symbolized, like a mortar for a pharmacist, scissors for a tailor, or a violin for a musician. We love old cemeteries, but the language barrier made interpreting the tombstones difficult to impossible. So we were left, for the most part, with getting a broad feel for the place. One website listed it as number 3 of the 7 creepiest places on earth. I couldn't disagree more. The Sedlec Ossuary nearby is much more creepy, or the piles of skulls beneath Paris. For me, it is a monument to a people that care about and preserve their past under very difficult circumstances. 


  1. Definitely one of the most interesting cemeteries we've visited. The Jewish Quarter of Prague was an all-around favorite destination of mine.

  2. hi
    I came across your blog, and the beautiful pictures. we visited Prague recently, and saw the cemetary in the rain...
    you asked about the 3rd picture: "I wish I could read this. Why are the small rocks lying on top?"
    well: the writing is a bit broken, but it says something like: on the upper part -
    Yocheved Daughter of Rabbi Akiva Katz, and on the body - a description of what a decent woman she was, a good woman.

    as for the rocks - there is a Jewish custom, to put small stones (and not flowers) on graves, as a symbol for eternity and eternal afterlife.