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.
Ibn Toumert and the Almohads
Ibn Toumert and the Almohads
Tin Mal’s site seems now so remote that it is difficult to imagine a town ever existing in this valley. In some form, though, it did. It was here that Ibn Toumert and his lieutenant, Abd el Moumen, preached to the Berber tribes and welded them into the Almohad (“unitarian”) movement; here that they set out on the campaigns which culminated in the conquest of all Morocco and southern Spain; and here, too, a century and a half later, that they made their last stand against the incoming Merenid dynasty.
Known to his followers as the Mahdi – “The Chosen One”, whose coming is prophesied in the Hadith (Sayings of The Prophet) – Toumert was born in the High Atlas, a member of the Berber-speaking Masmouda tribe, who held the desert-born Almoravids, the ruling dynasty, in contempt. He was an accomplished theologian and studied at the centres of eastern Islam, a period in which he formulated the strict Almohad doctrines. For Toumert, Almoravid Morocco contained much to disapprove of and, returning from the East with a small group of disciples, he began to preach against all manifestations of luxury and against women mixing in male society.
After being exiled from the Almoravid capital, Marrakesh, in 1124, Ibn Toumert and Abd el Moumen set out to mould the Atlas Berbers into a religious and military force. They also stressed the significance of the “second coming” and Ibn Toumert’s role as Mahdi. Hesitant tribes were branded “hypocrites” and massacred – most notoriously in the Forty-Day Purge of the mountains – and within eight years none remained outside Almohad control.