The first traces of settlers on this territory are dated back to Stone Age era. The fertile banks of Vltava river were first inhabited by members of an unknown tribe, probably coming from Asia. Archeological finds of jewels from the prehistoric era that are similar in style to those from the Great Moravian Empire, confirm the existence of a Slavic settlement.
Construction of a Castle, building of the church of the Virgin Mary in its center, and the promotion of the Castle as the chief seat of the Přemyslid dynasty, gave Prague proper status and made it along with Cracow, Wroclaw and Dresden into one of the most important cities in medieval Central Europe.
Very favorable location of Prague on the crossroads of the most important merchandise routes in Europe, allowed the city to gain profit from taxes, fairs and markets. Profit which was invested to change Prague into a regional capital city. Castle became a central point around which other quarters of the city were planned and established through the centuries.
The gradual change of the scattered and hectic agglomeration below the castle into a fortified and privileged medieval city took three centuries. Prince Bořivoj, who was the first known ruler of the Czech recognized the importance of the castle settlement development and during his rule the castle became the reference point for the future city. Prague was granted city rights at the end of the XII century. The Old Town came into existence in 1220 and was merged with the Lesser Town at the end of the XIII century. At the beginning of the XIV century Hradcany were established, as another Prague borough.
Golden Age and Charles IV
A period of Golden Age for the city came with the rule of Charles IV (1346-78), who thanks to his intelligence and education made Prague the greatest cultural center of Europe. After Rome, it was the second Christian metropolis in Europe. In the start of his reign, in 1348, he founded a higher education school. The Charles University was, along with the Jagiellonian University in Cracow one of the first schools of this type in Europe. He also founded first Student College – Carolinum in1366. Charles IV established and developed the New Town. He appointed Matyas from Arras to conduct the construction of cathedral of Saint Vitus in the Gothic style, which was finished by Petr Parler. Petr Parler raised other magnifies buildings such as Bridge Tower, Tyn church, church of All Saints. Charles was an initiator of building of the famous Charles Bridge. After his death, his son Wenceslas IV successfully took over the mission to promote economic and political boom in Prague and Czech empire. During the reign of Jagiellonian rulers, Prague accomplished its Gothic evolution.
The first Jews settled in Prague in the tenth century. The favorable location of the city on the international merchandise routes was attracting many Jews from Europe. The written document by Jewish merchant Ibrahim ibn Jacob from Cordoba is mentioning the existence of Prague and Cracow in XI century. The community suffered prosecution during crusades. In XIII century Jews were allowed to established the Jewish quarter and at the end of this century Altneuschul was inaugurated. The Medieval period with a rise of anti-Jewish Christian teachings was bringing occasional prosecutions against the Jews. The great kabbalist Avigdor Kara, who served as a rabbi in Prague , described the murder of 3000 Jews in 1389 in an elegy, which with time was incorporated into prayers recited on Yom Kippur.
In 1522 there were about 600 Jews in Prague and in 1541 about 1200. Prague became a center of Jewish learning in Europe and in 1512 Gershom ben Shelomo Kohen opened the first Hebrew press in Northern Europe.
The rule of the Habsburgs brought to Prague the spirit and architecture of the Renaissance and Emperor Rudolf II became the head of Holy Roman Empire. During his life, spent in Prague, he promoted the city and its development. Turbulent times of Protestantism and national revival on Czech lands with the defeat in the Battle at White Mountain (1620), did not spare Prague from partial destruction.
Spreading of contra-reformation and influences of Catholic church initiated the construction of new churches, convents and monasteries in the Baroque style. The architecture from this period with all its baroque lavishness marks the character of the city. The Library in the Strahov Monastery contains an early Baroque Theological Hall, Valdstejn Palace, Church of St. Nicolas. Cernin Palace - this early Baroque palace, now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Loretta - the tower contains 27 Loretta bells, which play the Song of Our Lady. 30 sculptures made by Matthias Braun and F. M. Brokof were added to the Charles Bridge.
The Habsburg victory over Protestantism installed Ferdinand II on the Czech throne and the city never came back to its central position, it was left without political power or importance. Habsburgs were much more linked with Vienna, where the political and cultural center was moved. First woman on the Habsburg throne, Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) was also treating Prague and Czech Crown as a part of the great "Empire where the sun never sets" The rule of her son, Josef II, brought destruction to the city by his fervent abolition of convents, monasteries, and churches, as well as by intense national repression. The unification of the Habsburg Empire was playing a crucial role and acting against any national particularities.
After 1784, in the turbulent period following the unification of different districts and boroughs of Prague, a new style called burgher-like Classicism appeared.
Jews in Prague from XVI to XX century
Under Rudolf II (1576-1611) and Matthias (1611-1619) the status of the Jews improved. According to the legend Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the "Maharal" from Prague created the GOLEM. Yom Tov Lippman Heller became chief rabbi of Prague and wrote the Tosafot Yom Tov. In 1627 Jews from all over Bohemia were settling in the city. In order to stop this influx, several restrictions were imposed in 1650. In late XVII century many Jews died in plague and the Jewish district with 11 synagogues burned down. In 1726, Charles VI imposed the Familiants Laws, which stipulated that only the eldest son could marry and establish a family, the other male members of the family had no other choice but to remain single or leave Bohemia. In 1744 Maria Theresa expelled the Jews from Prague, but four years later, promising to pay high taxes they were allowed to resettle. Despite all difficulties and disabilities, the community remained a center of Jewish learning. Here we should mention: David Oppenheim - well known bibliophile, Yonatan Eybeschuetz - the kabbalist, rabbi Yehezakel Landau - yeshiva leader.
During the reign of Joseph II, the Jews won emancipation but were forced to attend regular public schools and serve in the army. With the 1848 revolution they were given equal rights. In 1852 the ghetto was opened and named Josefstaedt. During the second half of XIX century Jews tended to adopt German language and German culture. In 1880 the Jewish population was 20.508 increasing to 27.289 in 1900 and to 35.463 in 1930. During those years almost half of the Jews were engaged in trade, about 22% were layers and 8% doctors. Before WW I Zionism was well developed with Bar Kochba students organization as the central point for this ideology. In 1911-12 Albert Einstein taught at the German University in Prague. Writers organized in the so called Prague Circle were: Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel. Some synagogues modernized their liturgy but not necessarily in accordance with the Reform movement.
XIX century brought also a visible change into Prague's architecture. The Neo-Renaissance style symbolized the rebirth of the Czech nation and found most use in the construction of buildings closely associated with Czech national culture (e.g., the National Museum, the National Theater, the Rudolfinum.) At the same time, Prague said farewell to its old fortifications. Around the year 1900, Prague's population approached 200.000 and the prevailing style was Art Nouveau. The city then was among the largest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
On October 28, 1918, Prague became the capital of the newly independent Czechoslovakia.
Prague Jews in WW II
The process of secularization became intense, and Prague had one of the highest percentages of mixed marriages in Europe around 30% in 1930. In late 30's with Nazi policy in the neighboring countries, there was a large influx of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Sudetenland. In March 1939 with the beginning of Nazi occupation there were 56.000 Jews in Prague. In July 1939 the Reichsprotector Constantin von Neurath founded a Central Office for Jewish Emigration headed by Adolf Eichmann. Jewish organizations increasingly devoted their activity to welfare and emigration. By the end of 1939 about 19.000 Jews were sent to Palestine by Palestine Office in Prague headed by Yaakov Edelstein, latter he became Jewish Elder in Theresienstadt. From October 1941 to March 1945, 46.067 Jews were deported from Prague mostly to Theresienstadt but also directly to the east. The Nazis set up a Trustee Office responsible for the abandoned property. Some goods were stored in 11 synagogues and in 54 warehouses all over Prague. These buildings were not destroyed. .
After the WW II about 4.980 Jewish survivors came back to Prague. During the later period of Communist Czechoslovakia they were gradually emigrating to Israel or to the United States.
Nowadays there is an active Jewish community with few hundred members.
At the end of the last century, Prague's historical center was included in the prestigious list of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Places worth visiting in Prague:
Church of the Holy Ghost (Kostel sv. Ducha) - it was built in the mid-XIV century as a part of a convent of Benedictine nuns. The church was destroyed in 1420 during the Husite Wars and severely damaged by the fire of 1689. The furnishings are mainly baroque.
High Synagogue (Vysoká synagoga) - built in the XVI century and financed by Mordechai Maisel, mayor of the Jewish Town.
Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) - this synagogue was built by Maisel in 1586, its rococo facade was added in the XVIII century. There is a clock tower with Hebrew figures whose hands run backwards because Hebrew reads from right to left.
Klausen Synagogue (Klausová synagóga) - this Baroque synagogue was completed in 1694. There is a good exhibition of Hebrew prints and manuscripts, a permanent exhibition showing Jewish traditions and customs and also drawings of children from the Terezín concentration camp.
Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagoga) - built by Maisel the original renaissance building was a victim of the fire in 1689. A new Neo-Gothic synagogue was built in its place. It has a large collection of silverware, previously confiscated from Jewish families by the Nazis.
New Jewish Cemetery (Židovské hřbitovy) - founded in the late XIX century, much larger and much less visited than the Old Town Cemetery. It has some impressive graves from the early 1900s. Franz Kafka is buried here.
Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov) - founded in XV century, it is believed to be Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. The most prominent graves are those of Mordechai Maisel and Rabi Löw.
Old-New Synagogue (Staronová synagóga) - dates back to XIII century. It is the oldest working synagogue in Europe and one of Prague's earliest gothic buildings, which in spite of fires, floods and the Nazi occupation, remains up until today the functional, spiritual centre of the Jewish community.
Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova Synagóga) - founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas, rebuilt many times over the centuries. The walls inside the synagogue are covered with the names of over 77,000 Jewish Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia. There is also a collection of paintings and drawings by children held in the Terezín concentration camp during WWII.
Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagóga) - built in 1868 the Spanish synagogue was named after its striking Moorish interior. There is an exhibition showing the life of the Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day.
St Agnes's Convent (Klášter sv. Anežky) - the convent was founded in 1234 by Agnes, a sister of King Wenceslas I. In the1230s it was a double monastery of the female Poor Clares and the male Minorites. Today, the convent is used by the National Gallery to display a collection of European medieval art.
The Rudolfinum (Rudilfinum) - built in XIX century, the Rudolfinum is a prominent example of Czech Neo-Renaissance style. It was named in honour of Crown Prince Rudolf of Habsburg. Between the wars it served as the seat of the Czechoslovak parliament. Today it is a home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Rudolfinum Gallery where temporary art exhibitions are held.