The Tin Mal Mosque, quite apart from its historic and architectural importance, is a beautiful monument – isolated above a lush reach of river valley, with harsh mountains backing its buff-coloured walls. It has been partially restored and is a worthwhile stop.
The mosque is set a little way above the modern village of Tin Mal (or Ifouriren) and reached by wandering uphill from the road bridge. The site is kept locked but the gardien will soon spot you, open it up and let you look round undisturbed (tip is expected).
The Tin Mal Mosque was finished by Abd el Moumen around 1153–54, partly as a memorial to Ibn Toumert who started constructing it in 1125 as a Koranic school (tinmil means “school” in ancient Berber), and also as his own family’s mausoleum. Obviously fortified, it probably served also as a section of the town’s defences, since in the early period of Almohad rule, Tin Mal was entrusted with the state treasury. Today, it is the only part of the fortifications – indeed, of the entire Almohad city – that you can make out with any clarity. The Almohad city had been home to twenty thousand Berbers before it was was largely destroyed in the Merenid conquest of 1276.
That Tin Mal remained standing for that long, and that its mosque was maintained, says a lot about the power Ibn Toumert’s teaching must have continued to exercise over the local Berbers (see High Atlas Berbers). Even two centuries later the historian Ibn Khaldun found Koranic readers employed at the tombs, and when the French began restoration in the 1930s they found the site littered with the shrines of marabouts.
Architecturally, Tin Mal presents a unique opportunity for non-Muslims to take a look at the interior of a traditional Almohad mosque. It is roofless, for the most part, and two of the corner pavilion towers have disappeared, but the mihrab (or prayer niche) and the complex pattern of internal arches are substantially intact. The arrangement is in a classic Almohad design – the T-shaped plan with a central aisle leading towards the mihrab – and is virtually identical to that of the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, more or less its contemporary. The one element of eccentricity is in the placing of the minaret over the mihrab: a weakness of engineering design that meant it could never have been much taller than it is today. In terms of decoration, the most striking feature is the variety and intricacy of the arches – above all those leading into the mihrab, which have been sculpted with a stalactite vaulting. In the corner domes and the mihrab vault this technique is extended with impressive effect. Elsewhere, and on the face of the mihrab, it is the slightly austere geometric patterns and familiar motifs (the palmette, rosette, scallop, etc) of Almohad decorative gates that are predominant.