Ever since I first saw photographs of this cemetery I knew I had to visit it. In fact, even though Prague has a lot to offer, for me, this was its biggest draw. The thousands of moss-covered gravestones, standing, tilted, fallen, leaning on one another…the aesthetic was very powerful, as was the story of its inception/growth. Needless to say, this was my first stop after I arrived in Prague.
This cemetery is one of the most famous in Europe, especially Central Europe (I knew of this cemetery long before I ever heard of Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, or even of the monumental cemeteries in Italy). It regularly features in top 10 lists of all-time cemeteries to visit. As a result, a fair number of tourists in Prague come to see it. In fact, the fact that you can’t buy a ticket just to see the cemetery I think is a testament to what is most attractive to many people in the Jewish quarter. You can get a combined ticket to visit the cemetery that also includes all the other Jewish sites, which is the only way to see the cemetery properly. It’s unlike any of the other cemeteries I’ve seen so far (and possibly, ever) in that it is difficult to get an initial impression of the place when you first enter it, you can’t walk amongst the tombstones (though really, why would you? The possibility/probability of damaging one of the headstones or yourself would be quite high) which means staying on a narrow path that is basically one-directional, and if you have any interest in really photographing the cemetery it means that you will have to deal with lots of guide-following tourists passing you by in a constant stream behind your back. It’s not that bad, but changing film was sometimes a bit awkward with all the people and the narrow paths.
I was fascinated with the old headstones, many of which were partially or completely faded away – its hard to believe that there are some 10,000 headstones here, with ten times that many burials. When I first arrived I was burning through film since I didn’t know what was around the corner, if things would get better or worse. Trust me, things only get better the further along you get into the cemetery. The really crowded section with the larger stones are at the end, so if you have limited film and/or are chasing the light, it would be good to be aware of that. When I got to the end of the cemetery there were a bunch of tourists on the other side of the gate trying to get a glimpse of the cemetery inside. But I don’t think you can see very much from the doorway, and you certainly don’t get a sense of scale either. This was the only cemetery that I’ve had to pay to get into (so far – Highgate is coming soon) but it was worth it. I would definitely go again.
Quality of Monuments: Mesmerizing. Despite the fact that I couldn’t read any of them (they are all in Hebrew), the sheer number of monuments in various stages of decay is really the attraction here. There are some symbols (lions, wolves, hands, etc) that indicate professions and/or family names.
Cemetery Grounds: Overall not that big, but bigger than I expected. The graves are fences off from visitors by a simple rope and there is a simple path that winds around the cemetery, kind of in a very big loopy s-shape. There are a few graves at the beginning and it just gets more and more crowded as you walk on.
Number of Visitors: Quite a few. As this cemetery closed in the 18th century there are no mourners here, it’s all tourists, and while I was there, it was mostly larger groups (10-30 people) coming through. Try to get there early before most of the tour groups come if you want to spend any time photographing/contemplating the cemetery. (To be fair, the groups do move fairly quickly through the grounds).
Photographer notes: Officially you have to buy a photography permit (70 crowns) to photograph any of the Jewish sites, including the cemetery, which I did, but nobody seemed to check whether or not one had a permit or not. Obviously no tripods are allowed here. There are a lot of trees, and the area is surrounded by buildings, so light may be uneven in places.
Cemetery: Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov)
Location: Josefov (Jewish Quarter, Prague). The nearest tram/metro stop is Staroměstská.
Inaugurated: 1437 (possibly earlier), closed 1787
Hours: 9:00-18:00 (April to October) 9:00-16:30 (Nov to March)
Closed: Saturdays and Jewish holidays