One of the more curious tourist attractions in Prague is the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Josefov part of the city, which was founded in the 15th century and closed for burials in 1787. As the final resting place of over 100’000 people going back more than 500 years, there is certainly a story to tell here of the plight of Jewish communities throughout Europe; however, visitors are also pulled in by the truly distinctive appearance of the site which can reveal a great deal about its unique history.
The earliest gravestone is dated 23rd April 1439 and belonged to the rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara. Before long, however, the space in the graveyard had been exceeded, and Jewish communities were restricted as to where they could dispose of their dead. In addition, Jewish faith and traditions prohibit the destruction of gravestones or the removal of tombstones.
A unique solution was found, however – soil was heaped on top of existing graves and further burials were made, creating a layered effect. In fact, the Old Jewish Cemetery contains 12 layers of graves, with some 12’000 stones packed as closely together as possible to conserve space. A look at some of these tombstones will reveal historical periods ranging from the Gothic through to Baroque and Renaissance times, with some evidence of Rococo designs on display. Visitors can also see various pictorial representations on the graves, indicating the identity of those buried there. Look out for symbols like scissors, crowns and violins.
Some of the more popular graves to visit include that of Mordechai Maisel, the former Mayor of Prague Jewish Town at the turn of the 17th century, among others. The cemetery is also the final resting place of Rabbi Jehuda Loew Ben Bezalel, a prominent rabbi and the creator of Golem, a mythical monster made of clay that helps Jews through harsh times (The legend goes that Golem became violent and had to be destroyed himself).
In addition to the site itself, some visitors can go to have the dead grant your wish or request. The tradition goes that by writing a wish on paper and weighing the paper down with a stone taken from your place of origin, the dead will take listen and help you on your way. It is important, however, not to disturb the stones already in the graveyard or to take a stone from another grave, as this is disrespectful to the dead.