Kahina – Legendary Leader

A statue of a woman standing upright, with her right arm raised in an arc above her head is one of the attractions in the city of Khenchela, the capital city of the province of the same name located in the Aurès Mountains of northeast Algeria. The statue depicts Daya Ult Yenfaq Tajrawt Dihyā, more commonly referred to simply as Dihya or Kahina. While scholars may dispute some of the facts of her life, her considerable influence was evident during the 7th century as Kahina, in her role as a Berber military and religious leader, led the indigenous peoples of Numidia to resist Arab expansion in the region.

Kahina’s exact birthplace, as well as her date of birth and when she died, is unknown, but it is agreed that she was born in the region of modern day Algeria early in the 7th century, dying before the end of that century. Her name has been spelled in different ways, including Dihyā, Dahyā and Damiya, but she became part of Algerian history by the name given her by Muslim opponents – al-Kāhinat – meaning soothsayer and being a reference to her alleged ability to foresee the future. Depending on who is presenting the account, Kahina is said to have been the daughter of either Mātiya, or Tabat. She may have been either Jewish or from the tribe of Judaized Berbers, although she was said to carry an icon of one of the Christian saints, possible even that of the Virgin. Some suggests that because one of her sons is described as yunani (Greek), she may have been of mixed Berber and Byzantine Christian descent. Various legends refer to her great size, long hair and ability to foretell the future, all of which add to her reputation of being a soothsayer.

Whatever her origins may have been, it is agreed that al-Kāhinat took over from Kusaila as the military leader of the Berber tribes, strongly opposing Umayyad Dynasty forces encroaching on their territory. Having captured the Byzantine city of Carthage, Hasan ibn al-Nu’man of the Umayyad Dynasty heard of the legendary powers of Kahina and led his troops into Numidia to confront her, only to be defeated and forced to flee. In an attempt to prevent retaliation by Hasan, Kahina employed a scorched earth campaign, burning and destroying anything which may have been useful to her enemies, thereby creating a type of barrier between them. This apparently had little effect on the mountain dwelling Berbers, but oasis-dwellers withdrew their support from Kahina, creating a weakness that Hasan used to his advantage. In the early 700s Hasan’s forces defeated those of Kahina, and conflicting accounts say that she was either killed in battle, sword in hand, or committed suicide by swallowing poison. In subsequent years, various tribes have laid claim to the legends of Kahina, with modern-day French colonialists, Berber, Arab and Maghrebi nationalists and North African feminists using aspects of her life story to support their own agendas and teach moral lessons.