Almost everyone who has been to Morocco knows the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, but few are familiar with the only other Moroccan mosque to allow non-Muslim visitors.
In the heart of Morocco, lies a sacred place that remains unknown to many: Tinmel Mosque. Though this hidden gem may not be familiar to you, I can assure you that it should most definitely be on the top of your Morocco travel bucket list.
Let me tell you a story, akin to the traditional hikayat (storytelling) of Morocco, so that you, too, can come to love Tinmel Mosque and her secrets as much as I do.
Finding calm in the eye of the storm
In the midst of all that is unsure, I find myself looking for my happy place in moments of meditation. I’ve lived in Morocco for over half a decade, visiting countless small towns in all of her corners. I came here as a PeaceCorps volunteer and stayed after my contract ended to continue doing development work with the people who had won my heart.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit two dozen countries across the globe, but Morocco is the only place to feel like home since moving out of my childhood house decades ago.
I can think of countless places that bring me joy: the top of Montmartre on a quiet winter morning, sunset at Cape Sounio, bike riding in Ayutthaya, boating around the Amalfi coast, watching the sun rise from the roof of my little house in the Sahara. For me, each of those places is so much more than the scenery; each place is tied to the emotions I was feeling in the moment.
As a long-time resident in Morocco, I come to one place more than others when I tap into my happy place, my deepest moment of zen: Tinmel Mosque. Few people are aware that this place exists. Even many Moroccans I’ve spoken to have never heard of it. It’s so far off the beaten path, you aren’t always guaranteed transportation to get there. It’s small and sacred, and it evokes strong emotions of comfort and calm.
Off the beaten path
Most mornings when the fajr (dawn call to prayer) wakes me, I grumble a little, roll back over, and drift off to sleep for a couple more hours. That morning, however, the 5:30 prayer synced with my alarm, much to my chagrin. My dear friend Mustapha wanted to show me something he promised was like nothing I’d seen before. How could I resist?
Finding your way around the al Haouz province surrounding Marrakech takes a little knowledge of the transit system that winds through the mountains like a giant spider web. It also helps to have an unwavering gumption to wander around the Sidi Mimou taxi station just near Jemaa el-Fna until you find the right taxi or mini-bus to get you where you want to go.
Not many travel the path we intended to take, so we were at the mercy of the people. In Morocco, you can easily wait half a day for a taxi to fill, allowing you to finally embark upon your trip. I always recommend getting an early start when you want to travel here. You never know how long the trip will take.
After an hour, we were finally able to fill all six seats and head south out of the city towards Tahanout. Two winding hours later and we arrived in the tiny village of Tazalt. From there we had to catch one more mode of transportation, the small van that drives through the mountains allowing people in the small villages access to one another. Finally, we found ourselves in Tinmel.
Stepping back into history
Morocco forbids non-Muslims from entering mosques, with two exceptions: Hassan II in Casablanca and the mosque in Tinmel. While most people who visit the country are familiar with the former, not many have even heard of the latter.
Tinmel Mosque sits above a river valley in the heart of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, approximately 100 kilometers outside of Marrakech. It stands as a testament to the Almohad dynasty and Ibn Tumart. The revolutionary religious leaders first planted the seeds of the dynasty in the village of Tinmel in 1121.
He used the grounds as a place to spread his teachings, encourage the people to recognize that there is one god, Allah, and overthrow the Almoravid dynasty that had ruled in Marrakech for many years. Ibn Tumart died as the Almohads grew in power, and he was buried in his beloved Tinmel. With time his tomb became a destination for pilgrims wanting to show their respects.
Around the time of Koutoubia Mosque’s construction in Marrakech, ‘Abd al-Mu’min built a large mosque on the Imam’s tomb. Completed in 1156, it was a grand splendor, rising out of the mountains and visible around the surrounding river valley.
Unfortunately, due to the mosque’s remote location it ended up in ruins. Locals still venerated the monument, so not a single stone was removed despite the dilapidation. In the late 20th century, builders did some work to restore various aspects of the mosque.
Today you can still see the impressive grand arches that held up the ceiling. The roof has long gone, but the blue sky dazzles between the columns and gives breath-taking views of the mountains. Wander through the mihrab and take in the stunningly-decorated domes, moldings, cupolas, and prayer room.
What surprised me most as we approached the front doors of the mosque was its emptiness. We had the place to ourselves. It felt so desolate, abandoned. Mustapha had promised me a sight like none other. However, all we found was a phone number on the door, for the guardian.
Upon his arrival, the guardian told us that despite the splendor, Tinmel has very few visitors. Perhaps it’s because it’s so far off the beaten path, or maybe tourists in Morocco prefer the glory of the intact Bahia Palace over the crumbles of Tinmel Mosque. Either way, the place sits empty, void of visitors.
For a small fee of MAD 10 ($1) each, the guard opened the door for us and let us take our time strolling through history. Tinmel Mosque is on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List, and rightly so. The architecture pulls you back in time, giving you a sense of the dynasty and their greatness.
After we had our fill of the sacred site and snapped dozens of photos, we hiked back to Tazalt and waited half an hour for a taxi to Marrakech to fill. There was something comforting about being squished there in the front seat together, feeding off the happy energy that the driver and the other four passengers shared with us.
Finding that happy place
We talked over life’s great mysteries and snacked on our popcorn during the final bus ride home to our village, wrapped in the warm joy of the day we’d just passed. As often happens with good friends, we fell into a comfortable silence, sharing his headphones, letting the miles pass by, and taking in the scenery as the sun dipped behind the western horizon, bringing our perfect day to a close.
When the world starts to feel a little too heavy these days, I close my eyes and find myself sitting under an arch in the courtyard of this sacred place, the sun shining on my face and a gentle breeze fluttering among the columns. There’s a quiet peace to Tinmel Mosque that helps balance the chaos, in Morocco and around the world, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As travel restrictions lift and we are once again able to explore, I encourage you to find this gem for yourself. The reward is worth the adventure.