His/Her Story: A Jewish warrior queen

The story of the Jewish Berber queen, her success as a warrior, and her own destruction.

view of Jerusalem, Old City 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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.
Interestingly 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.