Sunday, August 7, 2011

A "Jewish" Warrior Queen: Kahena

I've written before about the tradition of warrior women (hinds) in Arabia and environs.  Here's a short history of one the Berber queen Kahena

His/Her Story: A Jewish warrior queen
08/05/2011 16:18 By RENÉE LEVINE MELAMMED

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

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 present day 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.

A map of the Maghreb (modern-day)
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.

Interesting, the speculation about Kahena possibly being an augur and the meaning of her name.  My first thought was that Kahena is a variation of the word hind, after Kore-Diana, the ancestral goddess of the Koreshite tribe.(1)  Alternatively, seeing as she was called Dahia al-Kahena - "the Kahena" ("of Kahena") points to "Kahena" possibly being a title or a descriptive term - perhaps, then, "Dahia the Augur" (or "Dahia of [the] Augur", possibly pointing to a family role or position as tribal augurs). 

An unusual take on this warrior queen can be found at The Afrocentric Experience.  It quotes a description of Kahena as having "dark skin, a mass of hair and huge eyes" - the comment referring to her hair may refer to an afro or perhaps dreadlocks.  Well, that's one interpretation.  Personally, this description just sounds like a typical derrogatory description of a "wild woman" - as my mom says, 'Wild Eyed and Bushy-Haired" = and that's a reference to the very scary Baba (a crone witch or sorcerer) who is of Slavic origin, not a black African.  It has some interesting commentary. 

Wikipedia has an entry on this warrior woman and gives several spelling variations of her name: 

Her real name was said to be Dihyā, Dahyā or Damiya (the Arabic spellings are difficult to distinguish between these variants)[1]. al-Kāhinat (the female soothsayer) was the nickname used by her Muslim opponents because of her reputed ability to foresee the future.

Of actual biographical facts - basically none.  She had sons - two?  Three?  One of her sons may have had a Greek father.  She took over as a leader of her tribe possibly in the 680's.  Was she of the Jewish faith?  From what I've read, it's extremely unclear. 

That's about .  Did this woman actually exist?  She obviously did because the battles took place, but what her real name was we won't ever know.  According to Wikipedia:  Searching for another enemy to defeat, he was told that the most powerful monarch in North Africa was "the queen of the Berbers" (Arabic: malikat al-barbar)(2) al-Kāhinat.  She may simply have been called Malikat or Queen and, as words often change over time, it became Kahinat.

Unfortunately, the legend of this woman who led a Berber tribe nearly 1400 years ago has been used for various nefarious purposes since people first began writing about her, and it continues to this day.  I think if Kahena could come back, she'd make short work of those who have usurped her name.


(1) Walker, Barbara G., The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Hind al-Hunund, at 414.
(2) Arabic malikat brought to mind the child-eating god Melkart or Moloch mentioned in the Bible. 

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