One of the things I remember enjoying in Istanbul, Turkey was checking out the various mosques in the city. Those memories of beautiful Islamic architecture were one of the many reasons I had wanted to visit Morocco. While my research revealed that non-Muslims were generally not allowed inside any Moroccan mosques, my enthusiasm was not dampened because I did uncover two mosques I could visit. One, unfortunately, was up north in Casablanca so I had to shelve that one for another trip. The second option, Tin Mal Mosque, was in the High Atlas Mountains, 100km outside of Marrakech. After some more poking around, I found a day tour that would take me to it. Read on to find out if I recommend you should visit this mosque, too!
THE DRIVE TO TIN MAL MOSQUE
If rural life and beautiful mountain landscapes interest you, the drive alone to Tin Mal is worth the effort. It didn’t take long after my driver and I left Marrakesh to feel like I was in a different world, a calmer one. We passed by several places where one could ride a camel through a field (though I doubt the animals are well treated so I would skip that) and places where one could shop for Argan Oil (I also do not recommend this as allegedly “co-ops” in Morocco aren’t as advertised and the oil they sell may be fake and/or diluted with other oils). The road itself was well paved and some sections were very windy. There were times my ears even popped as we gained some elevation! My driver also told me that one of the twisty sections is part of a Tom Cruise scene in one of the Mission Impossible movies.
If it is a Saturday and you’re a fan of local markets, it is worth stopping in the little town of Asni. The market is small with mostly men selling and buying, and the odd tourist. There were all sorts of things for sale including local produce, clothes, shoes, motorbike mirrors, phones, and random bric à brac. Just be careful at what you point your camera – you can freely photograph things but not people.
As we made our way through the mountains, I saw tons of villages. Some fairly popped out of the mountain side, red walls bright against nature’s browns and greens. Other villages blended in until we were fairly close to them! Down on the valley floor, I saw skinny apple trees and flocks of goats. Sometimes I felt like I’d stepped back in time as I watched men in long robes and pointy hoods riding their mules down along the riverbed. Generally speaking, the road was on one side of the valley and the villages were on the other. That was because, historically, villages pretty much all sprung up on one side, where traders would pass by long ago.
You’ll know you’re close to Tin Mal when you come across the ruins of an old kasbah in what is now an empty field. And up on a hill, on the other side of the road, there is what seems to be a castle. But it isn’t one, according to my driver – the building was constructed in the early 20th century for a local leader’s horses, to keep them safe in the event of an attack by enemies. The place is now privately owned and is possibly being turned into a hotel!
THE HISTORY OF TIN MAL MOSQUE
It was built in the mid 1150s to memorialise the founder of the Almohad dynasty, Mohamed Ibn Tumart. The area soon became the spiritual and artistic centres of this Berber dynasty. It lasted until 1276 when the Almohads were conquered by the Marinid dynasty who in turn were conquered by the Wattasid dynasty who in turn were conquered by the Saadi dynasty who in turn were conquered by the Alaouite dynasty, the current royal family of Morocco! After the Almohads, Tin Mal was largely left to slowly crumble through the ages. The mosque was restored in the 1990s and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 1995.
VISITING TIN MAL MOSQUE
We arrived late in the morning, around the same time as a small German group. We were the only ones out here which was nice. From the outside, the mosque looked more like a fort as its minaret had fallen long ago. But it is inside where the mosque’s beauty lies. A local guide was the one to show us around; the place was deceptively small to the point where I was very surprised when the guide told us that in its heyday, Tin Mal held up to 3000 people for prayers! The interior was surprisingly well-preserved, with pillars and arches being the main theme. Some of the mosque, our guide said, had been restored, but some parts (such as the arches) were original. The roof was totally gone as it had been made of wood.
There were two highlights for me. First was the long row of arches that made for great photos, depending where one stood. The second was the beautifully carved mihrab, a niche in the wall that faced Mecca, indicating the direction of prayer. If you’re not an architecture fan, you’ll probably be finished exploring in ten minutes. But if you do like architecture and history, you’ll likely spend about 20 minutes wandering around in addition to the little tour done by the local guide.
The mosque is free to visit but definitely give the guide a tip for his services. If you arrive and the door to the mosque is locked, look for the sign with the caretaker’s phone number. Someone, apparently, will come unlock it for you.
Infgane: A small village along the road to Tin Mal that specializes in traditional pottery. Apparently, this village was originally settled by people from Senegal. Over the centuries, they mixed with the local Berber population. As I wandered through the village, I could definitely see that mixed heritage in people’s appearance. If you do stop at this village, you will be able to check out how pottery is made using traditional means. Quite interesting!
Said’s tour: I found it difficult to find a tour that would not only take me to Tin Mal but also do so without breaking the bank. I stumbled upon Said’s tour on Air BnB and am so glad I did! I ended up with a private tour that included pick up and drop off from my riad in Marrakesh, a vehicle with driver, and Said as guide. The first part of the tour was to Tin Mal and the second part was a fantastic lunch at his family’s Berber home, a quick stop at Infgane, and a peaceful afternoon walk through one of the local villages. Please note that I suggest this tour as an option only because I enjoyed it when I went. I have not been compensated for my recommendation.