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Kahina: Amazigh Queen (7th century CE)

Updated: Jan 17

Reign: 695 - 703 A.D.

Dihya al-Kahina was an Amazigh (Berber) warrior-queen who led her people against the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century. The Berbers are an ancient ethnic group, native to North Africa & parts of West Africa. The name“Berber”, given to them by their Arab colonizers is a deragatory term- meaning “barbarian”. Their indigenous name is Imazighen or Amazigh meaning The Free People.

Kahina's birth name was Dihya, meaning "the beautiful gazelle". Arab records describe her as being very tall and having “dark skin, a mass of hair and huge eyes”. She was given the name al-Kahina by her Arab adversaries meaning "seer" or "witch" as she was believed to use supernatural powers to fortell the future. Lore has it that Kahina could communicate with birds who were able to warn her of advancing armies. And some stories claim she married a tyrant who was persecuting her people and then murdered him on their wedding night.

What we do know is that Dihya al-Kahina headed the resistance to the Muslim Arab military commander Hasan ibn al Nu'man whose Umayyad armies invaded North Africa. As Hasan attempted to invade Carthage with 45,000 soldiers in tow, he was met by an army of Berber tribes headed by a woman. That warrior woman was Dihya who offered the Muslim commander peace. Hasan would not accept, unless Dihya converted to Islam, a demand she rejected vehemently. “I shall die in the religion I was born to”, was her response.

Kahina and her army of Amazigh tribes defeated Hasan more than once and drove him from the region. Five years later Hasan would return with a much larger army ultimately beating the Amazigh rebels. Legend has it that Kahina could foresee the future and knew she would be defeated this time, and as such she advised her sons to cross the lines and join the Muslims. Kahina would not surrender though and it is said that she ordered her army to burn the land leaving no crops, livestock or possessions. This scorched earth policy led to a loss of support from her people as they also were adversely affected. It is more likely though, that the Arab armies themselves used the scorched earth tactic as this was a strategy they had often used and blamed Queen Kahina so that she would lose support.

There are varying accounts of how al-Kahina ultimately died. Some say she was captured and executed others say she took her own life by falling into a well, but the most commonly accepted account is that she died in battle with her troops, still clutching her sword. Her head was then cut off and brought to Arab leader Khalif as a trophy.

Kahina's story remained mostly unknown with the exception of some references by Arab historians. It wasn't until the 19th century when the French military initiative in Algeria needed a heroine to support their cause - and who better than a woman freedom fighter battling Arab encroachment. During this time everyone wanted to claim Dihya al-Kahina as their own - the Amazigh holding the only real claim to their warrior queen. A statue of Kahina representing Algeria was displayed in Paris in 2001 as part of the exhibit entitled "Les Enfants du Monde". A second statue was erected in the Khenchela Province in Algeria honoring the Queen of the Amazigh.

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