The Story of Dahlia, Queen of the Berbers
A woman who faced her enemies while empires crumbled, one of the most famous yet elusive women in history, Dahlia was a Berber queen. She is better known as Kahina or al-Kahinat, a title given to her by the Arab Muslims, which means "the witch".
Daughter of the Desert
Before the Islamic conquest, Africa was a province of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire. At that time it comprised Tunisia, north Algeria and some parts of Morocco. Africa, reconquered in 533 AD by Emperor Justinian, was an Exarchate - a single province with virtual autonomy, governed by a supreme official called the Exarch.
The Exarchate's capital was the ancient city of Carthage. After Justinian's invasion, Africa experienced many decades of peace and relative prosperity. At a time when almost the entire world burned with the flames of war, this small province remained an oasis of stability. Peace brought economic prosperity. Its grain was exported, along with goods produced by its artisans, especially their red pottery which was renowned throughout the Empire. With luminaries such as Pristian, Corippus, Victor of Tunis and Aldhelm, Africa also rose to become one of the intellectual centers of the world.
This Africa of Dahlia's youth was a melting pot, in which peoples of different races and religions thrived, including Romans, Berbers, Vandal and Visigoth settlers, and tribes of black Numidians. There were Christians of various denominations - Catholics, Arians, Donatists (who rejected the ecclesiastic authority of the patriarchs) - and also numerous Jews and pagans. All these groups lived mostly in peace, marred occasionally by outbreaks of persecution against the Jews and Donatists, and other conflicts.
Very little is known about the private life of Dahlia. It is hard to distinguish fact from fiction in the numerous legends which surround her. Dahlia was born the daughter of Tabat, a chieftain of the Jrawa tribe, who lived in the region of the Aures mountains. Some (mostly Jewish) historians claim that Dahlia professed Judaism. These point out that her Arab title, "al-Kahinat", may be a corruption of the Hebrew word Khn, which means "a person of the priest class". The surname Cohen derives from the same root.
Additionally one Arabic chronicle, by Ibn Khaldoun, written years after her death, calls Dahlia "a Jewess". It is possible that the Berber Queen followed the Jewish religion, but this is only a speculation. Indeed, many Berber tribes professed Judaism at this time, but others also held Christian or traditional beliefs.
She may have been of mixed descent: Berber and Byzantine Christian, since one of her sons is described as a "yunani" or Greek. Also according to al-Maliki she was said to have been accompanied in her travels by what the Arabs called an "idol", possibly an icon of the Virgin Mary or one of the Christian saints.
The legends preserve some details of Dahlia's appearance. She had very long black hair, and had large dark eyes. She was extremely tall for a woman of the time. She was said to be charismatic, and authors attribute to her the gift of foresight - most likely a reminiscence of her great intelligence and wisdom.
When she was a young woman, a chieftain who demanded to possess her as his bride terrorized her tribe. Dahlia went into hiding for some time. Finally she agreed to the marriage. On the wedding night, she slew her new husband by smashing his skull with a nail. Due to her enormous talents, she climbed to the top of her society.
The Storm Comes
In 646 AD, when Muslims finally conquered Egypt, the long years of peace were about to come to an end. The Exarchate of Africa found itself on the frontline of the war with Islam. The Byzantine Empire, itself suffering defeats on almost all fronts, and further weakened by a constant civil war, could give no assistance to such a distant province. The Exarches had to completely rely upon local, limited resources. That they managed to hold off the Muslim advance for so long demonstrates how enthusiastically the local population supported the defensive actions against the Arabs.
It was not until 680 AD that the Arabs finally broke through the defenses of the Exarchate. While Romans barricaded themselves in coastal cities, a Muslim commander named Oqba led a raid along the coast that reached the Atlantic Ocean in modern Morocco. It is said that Oqba slashed the waves of the ocean with his sabre, furious that there was no more land to conquer. Upon his return in 683 however, Oqba's army was annihilated by a coalition of Berber tribes, and he himself was slain.
This victory, however, merely postponed the eventual fall of the Exarchate. In 697 AD, a new Muslim army entered Africa, under the command of Hassan ibn Numan. At that point, the weakened forces of the Exarchate could not stop the Arab advance, and following a sneak attack, Carthage fell.
Surprisingly, a Byzantine fleet appeared in African waters and the capital was retaken, only to fall again the following year, after a dramatic siege. Almost all its defenders and most of its civilians perished. In retaliation for its resistance, the Muslims destroyed the city. Thus the ancient city of Carthage, and with it the last Roman presence in Africa, came to an end.
The siege of Carthage, however, had given Dahlia the extra time she had needed. A new power in Africa was born. One consequence of the Byzantine defeat was that the Romans had lost their interest Africa. From this point onward, we have to rely solely on Muslim sources, which are very rarely reliable.
During the siege of Carthage, Dahlia completed her lifetime's achievement. She consolidated all the major Berber tribes under a common purpose - driving out the invaders. Beginning with guerrilla warfare, she soon graduated to launching full-scale invasion against the Muslims. She was joined in this by the survivors of the Byzantine army, as well as the remnants of the local Visigoths.
Dahlia attacked the main Muslim army, completely defeating it and pushing the invaders back to Egypt. She even reclaimed the ruins of Carthage. At that point, she was the unquestioned heroine and leader of all of Africa’s population – both nomads, Berbers and Romans. All the ethnic and religious groups united under her banner. She was also joined by some deserters from the Muslim army. One of them, most likely an apostate, became her lieutenant and adopted son. This was also the time when she gained her famous Arabic nickname.
Without doubt, Dahlia was close to creating an independent state. She ruled with an iron fist. She quickly transformed the anarchic Berber tribes into a disciplined army. She showed great military and administrative skills. She managed to hold Muslims at bay for a long time, perhaps as long as for three years. She also established an administration capable of maintaining a large standing army for this time. Dahlia was an intelligent person and knew that the Muslims would come back, so she prepared for them the best she could.
One of the most bizarre episodes of Dahlia’s struggle against the Muslims was the defection of her three natural sons. These joined the Muslims and converted to Islam, claiming that they did it on a peremptory order given by their mother. Some speculate that Dahlia knew that in the long perspective she had no chance to stop the Muslims, and decided that it was the only way to save her beloved sons’ lives. Other authors suspect that her sons came to conduct espionage and sabotage.
Even if this second option is true, Dahlia had no chance to make use of her sons’ skills. The exact cause of her downfall, and the date when this happened, is not certain.
Muslim chroniclers accuse Dahlia of maintaining a "scorched earth policy" in the hope that this would make the Muslims abandon their invasion plans. For this reason they say she ordered her men to burn cities, to kill livestock and destroy all the fields. Africa, according to Islamic chronicles, turned into a desert on her orders. Muslims say these actions caused her to lose the support of the settled population, who were terrified by the destruction. Farmers and city dwellers became, from this time onwards, passive observers in the conflict. Chroniclers say proudly that such destruction could never stop them, since the main reason for Islamic conquests was gaining converts.
Dahlia’s "scorched earth policy" is, however, an unlikely scenario. Non-nomads formed the majority of her army and supporters. She was intelligent enough to know that such a move would make them abandon her cause. Moreover, it diminished her already scarce resources. It is most likely that the destruction of Africa (which is a fact confirmed by archaeologists) was done by Muslims themselves who later attributed it to their enemy. The invaders were the only beneficiaries of the destruction. Moreover, Muslims used these methods of terrorist warfare elsewhere during their conquests, as in Spain and Egypt.
Dahlia soon found herself the only enemy of Islam on the African continent. Muslims sent considerable forces and finally defeated her Berber warriors. Sources differ on how she died. Some say that she died a soldier’s death – with a sword in her hand. Others maintain that she poisoned herself when all was lost and defeat was near. Even the exact date of her death is unknown. It happened between the years 702 and 705. Dahlia's head was mummified and sent to the Caliph, who ordered that it be nailed to the entrance of his favorite mosque.
After Dahlia’s death, the fate of Africa was sealed. All organized resistance ceased to exist, though some Berber tribes continued the open fight for some time. In all treaties with the Berbers, the Muslims demanded conversion to Islam. Facing the threat of complete destruction, most of the tribes agreed to abandon their old beliefs. Those who did not accept the new religion were killed. Many Berber women were said to have committed suicide.
Conversions threatened by force rarely have initial effect. For a long time local Muslim governors sent reports to the caliphs that the ever-rebellious Berbers were Muslims in name only, apostatizing at every possible occasion and starting mutinies time and time again.
The fate of the mostly Christian settled population was initially similar to that of Syria, Spain or Egypt. However, Christians had lost most of their intellectual elites who had either died in war or emigrated (most of old Roman aristocracy had fled to Italy). By such means, the population became Islamized and Arabized much quicker than in other regions conquered by the Muslim hordes.
Small pockets of Christians however, survived up to 17th century. In addition, as late as the 12th century in some coastal cities, the Latin language could still be heard in the streets.
A long dark night fell upon Africa…
It is somewhat ironic, but modern Islamic authors refer to Dahlia/Kahina as an example of the high role of women in Islamic societies.
- Primary chronicle: Ibn-Khaldun (a compilation of earlier accounts; very biased and written a long time after her death).
- Anonymous, Une Jeanne d'Arc Africaine: Episode de l'Invasion des Arabes en Afrique. Paris, 1890?
- Encyclopedia of African History and Culture. Vol. 2, African Kingdoms (500-1500). Edited by Willie F. Page.
- Facts on File, 2001.
- Gautier, E. F. La Passé de L'Afrique de Nord. Paris, 1937.
- Hannoum, Abdelmajid. Colonial Histories, Post-Colonial Memories: The Legend of the Kahina, a North African Heroine. Heinemann, 2001.
- Hannoum, Abdelmajid. The Legend of the Kahina: A Study in Historiography and Mythmaking in North Africa. Ph.D. thesis, Princeton, 1996.
Appendix: Dahlia in Fiction
- Dahlia appears as the titular character in Cahena: a Dream of the Past, a historical fantasy written by Manly Wade Wellman. The main protagonist is named Wulff, a Saxon from the Byzantine army who survived the massacre of Carthage. Wulff joins the ranks of Dahlia’s army and becomes her loyal retainer and subsequently a lover. The Queen herself is described as a mighty sorceress able to use magic.
- Completely fictionalized Dahlia appears in one episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.
- Female Berber leader Kahina (played by Aliston Bruce) appears in the Legacy motion picture. Plot is set in the 1st century and Berbers fight against the Roman Empire.
- Featured in the Canadian TV series Relic Hunter (episode 64). The relic hunters recover an artifact that had belonged to Dahlia. She is seen in flashback scenes.
- Kahina is the titular character in the following French Novels:
- La Kahéna: Reine d'Ifrikia written by Didier Nebot.
- La Kahéna, Reine des Aures written by Germaine Beauguitte.
- Le Roman de la Kahena written by Magali Boisnard
- Kahina appears in plays:
- Al-Kahana written by Ahmed Djelloul
- La Kahena written by Abdelmajid El Aroui
- A fictional female character loosely based on Dahlia is the main protagonist of a Moroccan comic book titled Tagllidt N Ayt Ufella (Queen of the heights). The Queen fights an evil Jinn (Genie).
I used the term "Berbers" to describe the indigenous people of North Africa though I know that it is most likely an anachronism. Although the word comes from Greek/Latin "Barbar" which means "Barbarian", it was probably attributed to Africans by Arabs. By such it was most likely initially an insulting term.
Romans called Berbers "Moors". I decided however to use term "Berbers" for two reasons. First, it is the name most commonly attributed to that people today. Second, the term "Moor" is used today to describe the Muslim population of medieval Spain and Africa.
The Berbers call themselves "Imazighen", which means "Free men".