In the early 7th century, the Byzantine Empire was losing its control over North Africa and the Mediterranean. Within the Byzantine Empire existed the Jrāwa Zenata tribe of Northwest Africa. The Jrāwa Zenata tribe was a Christian nomadic Berber tribe, one of the larger Berber tribes of North Africa. The Arabs were sweeping through North Africa conquering any people opposing their expansion. The remaining Berber Kingdom was led by a man named Kusayla, who recently defeated Arab forces and claimed the city of Qayrawan. In 688, Kusayla faced an Arab commander named Zuhayr ibn Qays al-Balawi in battle. Kusayla tried to use the mountainous region of Mams to give his army an advantage, but he was eventually defeated and the Arabs claimed more North African territory. Both Berber and Arab armies suffered significant damage and deaths due to several hard-fought battles. The Arabs withdrew from Berber territory to recuperate their forces. The Umayyad Dynasty under the rule of Abd al-Malik took a four-year break from warring with the Berbers to renew his army and naming Hassan ibn al-Numan as the new commander of his army and Governor of the North African territory they recently conquered. Under the command of Hassan, the Arab army took the city of Qayrawan and also conquered the city of Carthage. Many of the defeated Berbers were forced to relocate to other areas of North African or even occupy islands within the Mediterranean.
The Arabs were on a quest to control all of North Africa, all that remained in their way was a Berber resistance led by a woman named Dihya or al-Kahina. We don’t have any information about the birth of al-Kahina, but we do know she was a Berber of the Jrāwa Zenata tribe, and the tribe may have converted to Christianity because of her. The names of al-Kahina’s parents are said to be Matiya and Tatit, but I have not confirmed the names with any sources. After the defeat of Kusayla, al-Kahina became the leader of the Berber army. It is believed that she was able to become the leader of the army because of her mixed heritage which gave her rank over the remaining Berbers. She was known as a prophetess who received divine inspiration from God to fight for her empire. al-Kahina was leading her army to many victories and was controlling the strongest army in North Africa next to the Arab army. Hassan learned of the strong army led by a woman named al-Kahina and wanted to challenge her. He believed his army was the strongest and also looked to dispose of any remaining Berber forces. Similar to the Arab forces, al-Kahina’s territory grew larger as she defeated her opponents. She was now in control of the area of the Aures Mountains but the Arabs were encroaching upon her territory, which led to her first attack on the Arab army. 698, was the year that the “Queen of the Berbers,” al-Kahina led an attack at the Meskiana River in Algeria.
Hassan suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of al-Kahina and her Berber army. The Berber attack was so severe that it redirected, then halted Arab battle plans, killed hundreds of soldiers, and captured eighty Arab soldiers as prisoners. al-Kahina was well respected by Hassan after the first defeat. She would face and defeat Hassan in two other battles, further cementing her title as “Queen of the Berbers”, and reinforcing the fierceness of the Berber army. Hassan was defeated three times by al-Kahina’s army, so she returned her army to Ifriqiya. Meanwhile, a defeated Hassan was waiting for a chance to catch the Berbers at a weak moment so he would have a greater chance of victory. Sources say after defeating Hassan, al-Kahina attempted to form a healthy political relationship with the Arabs, but the Arabs rejected her attempt. Due to their rejection, al-Kahina implemented what is called a scorched earth policy, to damage the lands that she believed the Arabs wanted to conquer. Burning the lands created enemies within the Berber army and among the Berber people who depended on the lands for their livelihood. A number of the Berbers left Ifriqiya, some threw themselves upon the mercy of Hassan to save them. Only a small number of Berbers remained loyal to al-Kahina. Her army was fractured and her people were doubting her leadership, even though they were unconquered because of her leadership. Hassan had the advantage he needed. Around 699, Hassan led an army of twenty-four thousand troops into the city of Ifriqiya aided by the Berbers who were unhappy with al-Kahina. Her army was outmatched and eventually defeated by Hassan. To save the lives of her sons, she instructed them to join the Arab army. Because of Arab customs, her sons were welcomed into the army and appointed to serve as officers. Members of al-Kahina’s army were able to join the Arab army after al-Kahina’s defeat. It is said that she died in battle near a well in the city of Tabarka, in the Aures Mountains, fighting for her freedom and the freedom of her people. To The Queen of the Berbers, al-Kahina, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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