The Spanish Synagogue is built on the site of the Alt Synagogue, the Old Synagogue, said to have been a factor in the naming of the Altneu Synagogue, which was made of wood and burned down in the Prague Pogrom of 1389.
In 1492, the Jewish community of Spain was expelled, with some going to Amsterdam, some to England and some to Prague. In 1503, the first Sephardi Synagogue was built, but eventually the community needed a larger building.
The new Synagogue was built in 1867, which was the year that the Austrian-Habsburg Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time, the Hapsburgs emancipated the Jews. This was a great time for Jews in central Europe. They had a more freedoms than at any time in the previous 600 years. They had begun to acculturate, to mix into non-Jewish society, and had become fiercly patriotic to the new Austro-Hungarian Empire. This new attitude is reflected in the architecture of the Synagogue.
The Synagogue is very impressive, in stark contrast to the Altneu Synagogue. Whilst the Altneu was built 'al tnai' - 'on condition' that the Mashiach had not yet come, this was very definitely a permanent structure, designed to show that these Jews were, first and foremost, citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The architecture utilises the trends of the time, including Arabic-styled onion domes. The Synagogue was also Reform in its religious orientation. This reinforced the idea of being Austro-Hungarian, due to the fact that much of the service would now be read in German rather than Hebrew and, more importantly, references to Zion and to the coming of the Messiah were phased out.
On an interesting side note, the front of the Synagogue is very impressive, but it lacks one key feature: the door. The wall of the Synagogue which is so clearly the front did originally house the door, but the door was moved to the side of the Synagogue on the orders of the Christian Archbishop of Prague, who ordered the move so that Christians walking into the nearby Church would not see the Jews walking into the Synagogue.
For those taking a walking tour of Jewish Prague, this Synagogue represents the peak of Jewish achievment in Prague. It represents freedom, assimilation and acceptance. As such, it is the penultimate chapter in the Jewish story. Eighty years later, the final chapter of the story would be written, 5 minutes down the road in the Pinkas Synagogue