CATCH sight of a yellow Star of David and you know you're in the Jewish quarter of Prague.
Also referred to as Josefov, the town quarter was once the Jewish walled ghetto where the Jews believed to have settled as early as the 10th century.
Towards the end of the 16th century, the ghetto was most prosperous when a wealthy Jewish mayor became the Minister of Finance. The quarter was renamed "Josefstadt" (Joseph's City) in 1850, after the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II extended religious freedom to the Jews and other non-Catholic Christians in 1781.
As part of an initiative to remodel Prague, most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913. Left standing were six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall, which are all now part of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Josefov today completely surrounded by the Old Town. The small, over-built area holds no trace of the former ghetto that was said to hold an 18,000 population.
The tour around the Jewish Quarters can be quick, but if you're into delving into its history via a guided tour, it might take longer. Here are the points of interests that I came across while walking on my own.
Old New Synagogue or the Staronova synagoga. This 13th-century Gothic synagogue is Europe's oldest active synagogue that follows orthodox custom of separating the men from the women during prayer services. Originally, it was called the New Synagogue or the Great Synagogue. With new ones cropping up in the 16th century, it became known at the Old-New Synagogue.
Completed in 1270, it is the oldest surviving medieval synagogue of twin-nave design, and one of Prague's first gothic buildings. The roof's framework and the gable date from the Middle Ages.
The 18th century Zidovska radnice, or the Jewish Town Hall, located at the corner of Maiselova and Cervena Ulice, and adjacent to the Old New Synagogue. The 1586 town hall was originally built in Renaissance style and acquired the Rococo façade in the 18th century. Prominent feature of the structure are the two clocks-the tower clock displays Roman numerals and the lower clock, Hebrew numerals.
The 16th-century Vysoka synagoga, or the High Synagogue, is situated behind the Jewish town hall, a Renaissance building designed as a preaching place for councilors of the Jewish town hall. It was razed by the Great Fire in 1689, and reconstructed.
The Maisel Synagogue or the Maiselova synagoga stands as a museum today but was once a 16th-century synagogue was also destroyed by fire and rebuilt in baroque style. Hitler intended to use this structure as the "Museum of the Extinct Race."
The Old Jewish Cemetery is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe, that's said to have been founded in the 15th century by King Ottokar II of Bohemia. The oldest grave in the cemetery belongs to the Prague rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara. Other notable personalities buried in this site are Yehuda ben Bezalel aka Maharal Rabbi Löw, Kli Yakar Shlomo Ephraim of Luntchitz, Mordechai Maisel, among others.
Although there are about 12,000 tombstones visible, the number of people interred is uncertain because there are layers of tombs (Jewish tradition states that no grave should be destroyed and tombstone removed, thus the layering), which could number as much as 100,000.
The Obradni sin or the Jewish Ceremonial Hall is basically a new edifice that was built in the early 20th century (1911-1912) in Neo Romanesque style. It was intended for the use of the Jewish Burial Society. The former ceremonial hall and mortuary is now an exhibition space presenting Jewish history.
Replacing the Old Synagogue in its site after it was demolished in 1867 is the Spanish Synagogue or the Spanelska synagoga. It was built in the style of Moorish Revival architecture in the 19th century and underwent a restoration in the late 1990s. An impressive feature of the building is the elaborate interior. Intricate Islamic style polychrome and gilded patterns fill out the interior walls of the synagogue.
Before it became a museum and concert hall today, the synagogue became a repository for Jewish property taken by the Germans during World War II.
Except for its name. "Spanish synagogue," and Moorish architectural influence, the synagogue was never used by a Spanish congregation.