The Prague Old Jewish Cemetery
This actually was not the first Jewish Cemetery in the city. Following the expulsion of the Jewish community during the crusades, several large families chose to settle in what is now the New Town area of the city but from the early 15th Century were then relocated back into what had become the recognised Jewish Ghetto and the former cemetery was built over. There is a small monument outside the Michelangelo hotel which details what used to be there.
There are actually two Old Jewish Cemeteries. The famous one is in the Old Town (Josefov, 5th district). You may see descriptions of the Old Jewish Cemetery (Zizkov). This area was a cemetery from the late 18th Century in the Olsany district and was superceded by the New Jewish Cemetery later.
The Famous Old Jewish Cemetery
The oldest recorded grave here comes from around the same time i.e. the grave of Avigdor Kara (previously a child survivor of the 1389 pogrom) dates to 1439. The oldest part of the Old Jewish Cemetery bordering the block of houses in Maiselova was expanded on at least three occasions to allow for more burials and after horizontal expansion was no longer possible, they went vertical with the addition of layers of earth on top of the existing graves.
By moving the headstones and “Tumbas” (small house-like gravestones) during this process we have ended up with more than 12,000 visible headstones and more than 42,000 people buried here. But it’s a bit creepy to imagine the stacks of bodies in the eventual depth of up to 4.5 metres of earth (in the deepest part). Finally they could not expand on the existing land and a small park adjacent to the Old Jewish Cemetery was purchased but they barely used it for 50 years before King Joseph II closed them down in 1787. Burials were banned in the Old Town and New Town due to the risk of plague hence why the Jewish Cemetery in Zizkov then opened.
Tour Tip: If you are self-guiding then entry to the Old Jewish Cemetery is included in the Cool Pass (previously known as the Prague Card).
Interpreting Head Stones
I’m not Jewish myself, can’t read Hebrew and don’t really know Jewish customs in great depth etc but if you are the same as me then try and get an understanding of the characters on the gravestones. Although many of the stones give a description of the person’s life in Hebrew there are many stones that have the addition of figures or things which identify a profession, a family name or just a general character. Look for mice (Maisel family), grapes (sign of wealth), blessed hands (Cohen family), Goose (Gans family), scissors (tailor), violin (musician), grapes (sign of wealth) etc. For an indepth look at what symbols on Jewish gravestones mean check out the Blood and Frogs blog.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is part of the Jewish Museum. Check the Prague Jewish Museum page for location, ticket info, prices and restrictions. VERY IMPORTANT: Don’t bother to download tickets because you are only downloading a voucher and you’ll still need to queue to collect them (because of the magnetic strip and barcode). Avoid buying tickets on Sunday at the Old Jewish Cemetery (huge queue). Check the Skip the Line Tips and Tricks post for saving time. Note that the first time that you enter a Jewish site a man will receive a kippa (to put on your head). You keep this.
Views of the Old Jewish Cemetery are included in my Old Town and Jewish Quarter Walking Tour. Building entry can be arranged for private tours.