view of Jerusalem, Old City 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Arab tribes sought to conquer
North Africa and continue to Europe via Spain. The major obstacle to a conquest
of the Magreb was the presence of a Berber queen in the mountains of presentday
Algeria. Her tribe, the Gerawa, had converted to Judaism earlier in the century;
their queen, Dahia al-Kahena, daughter of Mathia ben Tifan, either converted
with them or was Jewish by birth.
This era signaled the end of the
Byzantine dynasty in a geographical area that was home to Byzantines, Arabs and
Jews, as well as Christian Berbers. The fathers of Kahena’s two sons were
equally diverse, for one was Berber and the other Greek.
Kahena was a
formidable warrior commanding a strong army. Hassan ibn Ne’uman, an Arab
Egyptian prince, successfully defeated the Byzantines in Carthage in 687 and set
forth to meet her in battle; she defeated him in Tunisia. Arabic lore relates
that at the time of her victory, she released all hostages except one, whom she
adopted in order to gain his loyalty. (In one version, she breastfed this new
son in order to cement his loyalty to her; if he was a soldier, this would have
been extremely odd.) Hassan returned to Egypt, where he awaited reinforcements
for about five years.
In the meantime, Kahena initiated an unusually
cruel policy, ordering the destruction of villages, cities and strongholds in
her own kingdom. The rationale for this was to discourage the Arabs from
entering this territory. Most likely it reflects the traditional enmity
between the Berber nomads and the permanent city-dwellers. (See H. Z.
Hirschberg, “The Berber ‘Kahena,’” Tarbiz (Hebrew), 26 (1957).) It stands to
reason that this policy paved the path for her downfall.
enough, Kahena is sometimes referred to as an augur; according to Arab lore,
Hassan was destined to destroy a Jewish soothsayer before he could proceed
apace. The meaning of this queen’s name has been debated for years, as to
whether it means catastrophe, a major problem or a sly person. “Kahena” could be
derived from “kohen,” and thus would refer to a priestess, a prophetess or even
a wizard. Perhaps she indeed lived up to her names.
At any rate, most
likely at the end of the century, Hassan decided to encounter this warrior once
again, having strengthened his forces and having heard that local discontent was
widespread. He was confident that he would be victorious this time. Meanwhile,
Kahena supposedly foresaw her own demise, including her death in battle; thus
she entrusted the lives of her two sons to their “adopted” brother Halid, who
supposedly served as a fifth column for Hassan, providing him with information
enabling this crucial victory.
The story of the Jewish Berber queen is
filled with fact and fiction; lack of contemporary sources makes it rather
difficult to always be precise. There are contradictions in different
versions: either her sons were killed with her in the battle near a well called
Bir al-Kahina, or they remained with their adoptive brother, converted to Islam
and conquered Spain together in 711. The latter version seems to be a much more
romanticized one befitting medieval Arab historiographical trends. Her age and
the duration of her rule are uncertain, although the shortest rule attributed to
her is 35 years.
Yet even after peeling away the romanticization, certain
facts remain undisputed and are supported by a Judeo-Arabic poem written by
local Jews damning her for having created such devastation for her own
people. Her success as a warrior stood her in good stead until she chose
a selfdefeating means of withstanding a second attack by a strengthened Arab
army. Her poor judgment led to her own destruction and that of Byzantine North
Africa. The defeat that she suffered cleared the way for the Arab conquest of
Spain in 711, the only country in Western Europe to experience Islamic
rule.The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the
Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal
Nashim. She has
published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.