Czech Republic

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Jewish Cemetery, Prague 

While in Prague we went for the full tour of the Jewish monuments in Josefov. Sadly in most of the synagogues and museums photography is prohibited so I don’t have much to show in this post. Some of them are quite beautiful and elaborate and well worth visiting.

In particular, the distinctly Moorish style and ornate interior decoration of the Spanish Synagogue stands out. Every surface is richly ornamented with geometric patterns in a palette of reds, blues and golds. It also contains an exhibit about the history and cultural contributions of Jews in the Czech Republic, documenting their continually changing relationship with the state and society, the rise of Zionism and the Czech Republic’s relationship with Israel. There was also a display of silver from synagogues all over the Czech Republic. I think if I was going to recommend one synagogue to visit, this would be the one.

The Old-New Synagogue is purported to be the final resting place of the legendary Golem of Prague. It contained a selection of beautiful old tapestries on display that were once used as Torah covers, fortunately/unfortunately they were dimly lit, probably for conservation reasons. Fortunately/unfortunately there was no photography allowed either, probably also for conservation reasons.

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

I did take a couple photos, however, in the Jewish Cemetery in Josefov. It’s an interesting place, raised high above the level of the street due to the sheer number of bodies buried inside. At some point in time they ran out of space so they began to lay graves on top of previous graves, gradually raising the level of the earth over time. Each time the existing headstones would be replaced at the highest level, until what remains is an overcrowded disarray of stones of various ages, in various states of repair, packed in haphazardly and fighting for view.

Given this history, I was tempted before my visit to think that it was a small place, but it turned out to be a lot larger than it looks from outside the gates. It’s an odd shape that fills the spaces between several buildings. Just about the time you think that you’ve found the end of it you turn a corner to find another courtyard jam-packed with stones, and it’s only then that you begin to understand just how numerous the bodies are that are interred there.

Visiting the cemetery, I felt much the same as I did at the Sedlec Ossuary, which is, I suppose, to say something about the calm realisation of the inevitability of death. It happens to everyone eventually, and gradually time strips the dead of their identities, and us of our memories of them. Though there are some conservation efforts in place to save and maintain some of the most culturally significant headstones, the majority of them are slowly decaying and becoming impossible to read.

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Kutna Hora

Silver Mine at Kutna Hora

Richard was very insistent that we see the Czech Museum of Silver while we were in Kutna Hora. I’m glad he did because I really enjoyed my visit.

The area around Kutna Hora has long been a rich source of silver, and during the Middle Ages it was the site of the royal mint. Underneath the town there is a large network of who knows how many mine shafts dug by medieval silver miners. At the museum you get the opportunity to tour through a portion of the mines to understand some of the harrowing conditions under which people worked.

As part of the tour, you suit up in hard hats and white canvas coats similar to what would have been worn by Medieval Czech miners. The coats have pointy hoods so they’re kind of a mix between dressing gown and KKK. You learn soon after entering the mine shaft that people were smaller in Medieval times than they are now. Unlike, say, the Củ Chi tunnels in Vietnam, no attempt has been made to widen the tunnels for tourists, so for many people on the tour it can be a tight squeeze to get through. Good thing we wore hard hats because I whacked my head a few times.

Kutna Hora Mine

Abandoned for 400 years, the tunnels are mostly flooded with water, and everywhere you look there are heavy sediments of calcite and other minerals gradually accumulating and filling the tunnels back in again. Give it another several hundred years and some of them might close up completely. Makes me wonder what a post-Anthropocene practice of geology would look like, if humans manage to last that long.

St. Barbara

St. Barbara

Our next stop was St. Barbara, a fantastic example of High Gothic architecture, with a beautiful set of Art Nouveau windows. St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners, so it was fitting that there would be a church in her name in Kutna Hora. Inside there was a fresco dedicated to the miners and minters of coins. We arrived shortly after a wedding so the organist was still there, messing around and sounding very dramatic. I took a lot of pictures, some of which are on Flickr.

train tracks

There is a small train line that runs along Kutna Hora, with a cute little single car train that goes back and forth, eventually connecting with the main line. We saw this train waiting at Kutna Hora Mesto, and for reasons that defy all logic, did not run for it. It left without us, seemingly the last train of the night.

So we walked the tracks toward the main line, along a rather scenic drainage ditch. I had my very first and hopefully last experience of stinging nettles. When we finally made it to the main station we had to wait a good hour for the next train, which like what seemed to be most trains in the Czech Republic, was fashionably late.

Kutna Hora Train Station at night

Sedlec Ossuary

Sedlec Ossuary 

Sedlec Ossuary

While we were in the Czech Republic Vicki suggested that we should visit the church of bones, so we spent Saturday in Kutna Hora, about seventy-five kilometres outside of Prague.

The Sedlec Ossuary contains the bones of at least 40,000 people who died during the Middle Ages. For quite some time the parish was a very fashionable place to be buried, and people would travel long distances in order to bring their relatives there, as it had been sprinkled with earth from the Holy Land in the 1200s. I could have sworn that I read somewhere, though I’ve been unable to back this up with online research, that it was said that the soil had magical properties, and bodies of anyone who was interred there would decompose quickly without putrefying.

Sedlec Ossuary

Sedlec Ossuary

But over time the cemetery became very overcrowded. Eventually many of the bodies were dug up and placed inside the chapel in artfully Baroque ways.

I suppose some would find that creepy. I didn’t. If anything, I felt a solemn sense of calm, coupled with an awareness of the inevitability of death. I think it was probably a combination of the fact that the bones were well bleached and that they were arranged in ways that didn’t really suggest any sort of skeletal structure or personality that would identify them as particular people. They’re just assemblies of disembodied objects. In contrast, I’m always left feeling a little icky when I’m confronted by the mummified remains of saints in Catholic churches.

Cemetery at Sedlec

Cemetery at Sedlec

Outside the Ossuary there is a very cheery cemetery, bright with flowers and potted plants. I particularly liked the headstones. The majority of them were very simple, with fantastic 20’s and 30’s style typefaces, and here and there images of the deceased peered out from them.

I always find the practice of putting pictures of the deceased directly on the headstones a little strange and foreign, probably for the same reason as above. The person is identified, so you have to reckon with the fact that they had a life and a personality, something you can map memories and feelings onto.

You can see more pictures from my trip to the Czech Republic on Flickr here.