The Czech Republic has a long and rich history, especially the cities as old as Prague. However, one of the most historically relevant areas of the city is the Jewish Quarter, which has evidence of its existence dating back to the eleventh century.

The Spanish Synagogue, located in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, is not nearly as historical as some of the surrounding buildings. It was completed in 1868, which makes it almost 600 years younger than the nearby Old-New Synagogue. However, the Spanish Synagogue’s location and mysterious history make it as fascinating as its older neighbors.

The Old School or Altschule

Torah Ark and Bema by Uoaei1 via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Before the construction of the stunning Spanish Synagogue, the same site was home to a synagogue called the Old School, or Altschule. It had been built as early as the 12th century in the original Sephardi Jew settlement and was the oldest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter until its demolition. The Old School Synagogue faced many tragedies during its long existence. It had survived multiple fires, pillaging, and even being shut down by Emperor Leopold I. From the 1500s to the 1800s, the synagogue was remodeled five times.

Despite these difficulties, the Old School Synagogue made history by being the first synagogue in Prague to offer services for Reform congregations. Moreover, the Old School Synagogue was the first in Bohemia to have an organ, where composer František Škroup served as an organist. In the mid-1800s, it was becoming clear that the enduring Old School Synagogue was not large enough to serve the growing community. Eventually, it was demolished, and the Spanish Synagogue was built in its place.

Design of the Spanish Synagogue

Spanish Synagogue.jpg
The Spanish Synagogue by Chmee2 via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Spanish Synagogue is visually magnificent, but who designed it? The architect is actually unclear. Early sources show Vojtěch Ignác Ullmann created a plan for the building, but it appears that his original plan was not the one used in the construction. A second plan had been completed and followed, which Ullmann claimed as his own. However, no evidence supports this. Instead, it appears that Josef Niklas or Jan Bělský may be the synagogue’s designers, but further evidence is needed to find a concrete answer.

Regardless of the unknown architect, it cannot be argued that the Spanish Synagogue design is unforgettable. The synagogue is considered Moorish, which is a style of Islamic architecture. The stunning archways, repeating patterns, and vegetative designs seen throughout the synagogue are common characteristics of Moorish architecture. Ironically, this style does not come directly from Spain but from the Moors, a term for the Muslim peoples that originate from North Africa.

Why was it named that way?

Interior of the Synagogue by Thomas Ledl via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Considering this, it would make more sense for the synagogue to be called the Moorish Synagogue or something similar. The actual reason for the synagogue’s name is another mystery. Written evidence of the name “Spanish Synagogue” only appears post-World War II, suggesting that it had a different name previously. One of the reasons it may be called the Spanish Synagogue is due to the fact that the Moors conquered and ruled Spain, Portugal, and areas of France for hundreds of years. Therefore, much of Moorish architecture exists within Western and Central Europe. One famous example is the Mosque of Córdoba, which is now a Catholic Cathedral in Spain.

The Spanish Synagogue’s mysterious past is fascinating, and more research is being done to solve it. The synagogue itself serves as a museum. Recently, the synagogue unveiled the current permanent exhibition, Jews in the Czech Lands in the 19th and 20th Centuries, after an 18-month renovation. The synagogue also holds many classical concerts and events. While it is currently closed, the Spanish Synagogue is worth visiting as soon as possible for its striking interior and historical worth.

Featured image by Tuomo Lindfors via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Michaela Dehning
Czech-American art history major at Arizona State University who lives in Prague. Passions include history, art, and culture.
Michaela Dehning
Michaela Dehning