The ancient indigenous people of North Africa, West of Egypt were of many tribes, and they were commonly referred to as the Berbers. Their lands were invaded several times, yet they managed to maintain their languages and their culture along with considerable military power. Among the invaders and conquerors of North Africa were the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals (Germanic tribes), the Byzantines and finally, the Arabs. Moreover, some other foreigners lived in ancient North Africa such as the Greeks and Jews.
When these invasions happened, who did they fight and at what cost?
In the 7th century, one century after defeating the Vandals, the lands of the Berbers, in particular North Africa’s coastal cities were ruled by the Byzantines. Today, we refer back to this collection of coastal cities in that era as the Exarchate of Africa and they were ruled by a viceroy (an exarch) of the Byzantines based at the ancient city of Carthage (eastern side of the modern day Tunis). The Berbers followed the different routes of faith and religion, some were Christians, some were Jewish and some followed their ancient polytheist religion. By the end of the century, the Byzantines were driven out of Africa and the Berbers faced a new invader bearing a new religion.
When Prophet Mohammed passed away in 632, the Muslims were only ruling the Arabian Peninsula. However, 10 years later, the Rashidun caliphate accomplished one of the most remarkable conquests in history. Between the years 635 and 642 they managed to conquer Syria, Palestine and Egypt from the Byzantines, and then Iraq and Persia from the Persians. The Arab conquest permanently changed the Middle East, for whichever land they conquered, the most people of this land became Muslims and Arabic speakers (except for Persia which maintained its language).
In the 680s, the Arabs of the Umayyad Dynasty moved across North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic. It wasn’t until 698 that the Muslims managed to take control of Carthage and they evicted the Byzantine Christians completely. That was the time when the Arab conquerors were about to face their last and most persistent enemy, The Kahina.
Her name is given in different variations such as, Dihya, Dahya, Dehiya, ⴷⵉⵀⵢⴰ. Her nickname ‘The Kahina’ (The Priestess Seer or The Prophetess) was given to her by her Arab-Muslim opponents due to her assumed ability to foresee the future. This was most probably a result of her intelligence and the persuasive manner that she possessed. Some historians relate her nickname to her being Jewish, since “Kahina” is likely to be derived from the Jewish term “Cohen”, which means priest. This is backed up by several other recounting of her story. The 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun says that the Kahina and her tribe, the Jerawa of the Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria and Tunisia were Jewish. Another historian described the Kahina as “the picturesque appellation of the ‘Berber Deborah'”, referring to Deborah, a judge of ancient Israel. While some people believe that the Kahina’s resistance to the Arabs was fuelled by her Berber patriotism and Jewish faith, others believe that her resistance was not religiously inspired, and they deny that she was Jewish for there are accounts that in her travels, she was accompanied by a ‘Christian idol’ of a Christian saint or the Virgin May. This makes the religious background of the Kahina remain somewhat a bit shady. The accounts of her bravery though are as solid as it gets. Her career in leading the Berber began when she succeeded Caecilius the war leader and took charge of the Amazigh army in the 680s.
If we go back to the sequence of events, we will find that soon after the Arabs took control of Carthage from the Byzantines, the brave and defiant Kahina led her forces of resistance against the Arabs military advances, and eventually, she defeated the Arab general Hassan Ibn Al-Numan in the Battle of Meskinana, also known as the Battle of Camels near Meskiana, Algeria. The Kahina was known to the Arabs at that time as “the Queen of the Berbers”, the most powerful monarch in North Africa. This single defeat lead to a hundreds of miles retreat by the Arabs, for general Hassan retreated all the way back to Libya. The Kahina then took control of Carthage and became ruler of most of the Berbers of North Africa for a period of five years (695 – 700 AD).
The Kahina was intelligent enough to realize that her Arab enemy was too powerful and bound to return back. To prepare for them, the Kahina formulated a plan. She announced that the Arabs wanted to conquer North Africa only because its wealth, so in order to make the land ‘undesirable’ for the Arabs she embarked on a scorched earth campaign which involved the burning of the countryside and the destruction of cities and orchards. Not only did this policy cost the Kahina the support of the sedentary city and oasis-dwellers but it sort of hastened the defeat of her units. The Arabs were determined to take North Africa regardless of its wealth or poverty due to the fact that it was a gateway to Spain and Europe, and to fulfill their goal of converting the people of this region to Islam.
Five years later from the day of their defeat, the Arabs returned with a strong army and invaded the Berber lands. The Kahina was defeated and killed in combat, a true warrior’s death in Aures (modern day eastern Algeria). The well which was nearby from the place where she died still bears her name, Bir Al-Kahina (The Well of The Kahina).
The Plaque on the left reads in Arabic:
Queen of the Berbers from the “Jerawa” family, Daughter of “Tabet” Died in the year 701/702 AD, By the well of Atter, near the city of Tébessa (source)
Regarding The Kahina’s personal life, historians describe that she was beautiful with long dark hair and that she was great in size, which are said to be legendary characteristics of prophets. She had three sons, two were her own (Bagay and Khanchla) and the third was adopted (Khaled Ibn Yazid Al-Qaysi). There is a legend that tells of a political tactic that she undertook in order to free her people from a certain tyrant. The legend says that she agreed to marry him, and then she murdered him on their wedding night.
Dihya, the Kahina stands out among both the men and women of medieval history, for she achieved greatness solely through her own efforts. She is a self-made courageous woman and warrior who dedicated her power to the resistance of invasion and the protection of her land and culture, which made her one of the most famous legendary figures in the history of ancient North Africa.
- Ibn-Khaldun, Wali al-Din Abd-Ar-Rahman. Histoire des Berberes et des Dynasties Musulmanes de l’Afrique Septentrionale. Translated by William MacGuckin, Baron de Slane. Algiers, 1847-1851.
- al-Mālikī, Riyād an-Nufūs. Partial French trans. (including the story of the Dihyā) by H.R. Idris, ‘Le récit d’al-Mālikī sur la Conquête de l’Ifrīqiya’, Revue des Etudes Islamiques 37 (1969) 117-149.
- Talbi, Mohammed. (1971). Un nouveau fragment de l’histoire de l’Occident musulman (62-196/682-812) : l’épopée d’al Kahina. (Cahiers de Tunisie vol. 19 p. 19-52). An important historiographical study.