Dahlia, The Berber Warrior Queen
……..is better known as Kahina or al-Kahinat, a title given to her by Arabs, which means "witch".
Before the Islamic conquest,
The Exarchate’s capital was the ancient city of
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 had Christian or traditional beliefs.
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 terrorised 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.
In 646 Ad, when Muslims finally conquered
It was not until 680 AD that the Arabs finally broke through the defences 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
This victory, however, merely postponed the eventual fall of the Exarchate.
In 697 AD, a new Muslim army entered
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
The siege of
During the siege of
Dahlia attacked the main Muslim army, completely defeating it and pushing
the invaders back to
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
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
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, apostatising 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
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.