About two years ago, I was in Casablanca, enjoying some Tangine and assorted salads at the Sqala Cafe Maure. Nestled in the ochre walls of the sqala, an 18th-century fortified bastion near the marina, it served as inspiration for one of my favorite warriors.
My host, Driss, a Casablanca area businessman, and I were discussing the various warriors that made up History's Greatest Warriors Volume 1.
He asked me about Dihya, and why I hadn't included her in the book.
"Dihya?" I asked. I hadn't heard of her yet.
Driss went on to describe a warrior Queen that was an inspiration to the Maghreb culture of North Africa.
After hearing his description of her exploits, I knew right then and there I needed her story in Volume 2 of History's Greatest Warriors.
I hope you find her story just as fascinating as I did.
“Algerian Warrior Queen”
While Joan of Arc stands out in the minds of most as the most famous example of a brave and religiously-inspired woman-warrior, few of us have heard of Dihya. A mighty Queen Warrior, she was a kindred spirit to Joan of France and defended her country and religion vehemently back in the 7th century.
Born in the mountains of modern-day Algeria, Dihya is purported to have been a member of royalty and destined to become the Queen of the Aurés. Although little is known of her parentage, according to the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun her mother was a member of the Jrāwa tribe who went by the
name of Tabita or Mathia ben Tifan – daughter of Tifan.
As a Jrāwa, Dihya would have been considered a Berber, although this term has been rejected by the Amazigh people throughout history. The Amazigh people populated much of North Africa from as earlier as 5,000 BC and commanded considerable respect for their military competence and excellence with horses. Calling themselves Amazigh, possibly meaning ‘free men’ the Berbers integrated with the Phoenicians of Carthage, living alongside them in an uneasy peace for many years.
The Israeli writer and translator Nahum Slouschz suggests that Dihya was a descendant of a wealthy and noble family, deported from Judea. According to Slouschz’s version of events, King Josiah instigated the Deuteronomic Reform, removing idols, destroying cults and establishing the Temple of
Jerusalem as the focal point for all worship. In keeping with the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, the reform stressed the notion that only one God should be worshipped, reinforcing the concept of monotheism.
Slouschz describes Dihya as “a descendant of a priestly family” ; as priests exist only in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches, her family didn’t necessarily support the strict Judaism of Josiah, and this might have led to their deportation. Although some sources indicate that Dihya was Jewish by birth, it seems more likely that she converted to Judaism with the rest of her tribe earlier in the century.
Historically the Amazigh people held a variety of religious beliefs, with some being Jewish, others Christian and still others adhering to an ancient polytheist set of beliefs.
Although Dihya has been depicted as a leader faithful to the Judah religion, some claim she was a Christian who took strength from the image of the Virgin Mary. Others suggest that she practised an indigenous religion which worshipped the sun and moon which resonates with her reported prophetic powers better than either the Christian or Jewish religions. Whatever her beliefs, Dihya was brave and determined while facing the rise of Islam in Africa, perhaps partially due to the denigration of women within the Islamic religion which would have undermined her authority and status.
Little is known of her childhood, although there have been suggestions that she developed an early interest in desert birds. While this seems a trivial footnote in her life, her studies significantly advanced biological science in North Africa as well as contributed to her reputation during her lifetime as a sorceress who could foresee the future by speaking to the birds and animals. As with everything relating to Dihya, there are many different versions of events that revolve around her;
even her name is debated. Some refer to her as Dahiya while other scholars name her as Tihya or Dahra.
All the records we have of her life are often controversial and contradictory, full of legend and folklore with a few facts sprinkled in. Like her religious beliefs, Dihya’s tribal origins are equally unclear with some suggesting she belonged to the Lūwāta tribe rather than the Jrāwa. Regardless
of the lack of clarity regarding her origins, Dihya established herself as a powerful leader who united disparate Berber tribes to fight for their cultural and social independence, refusing to be subjugated.
Prior to leading her own army into battle, Dihya fought alongside Aksel, the king of Altava and chief of the Awraba clan; according to some sources he was her father. During these battles, Dihya proved her capability as an adept soldier and astute military commander. Aksel led the Byzantine- Berber army into battle against the invading Arabs, plotting their defeat after pretending to join the Arab side. According to some, Aksel converted to Islam as a ruse to lure the Arabs into a false sense of security that enabled Aksel to ambush their weakening army. It seems Aksel believed that converting to Islam would be profitable for him, but as the Muslim influence and army grew in strength, Aksel’s own position of sovereignty looked certain to come to an end, and he was encouraged to abandon his adopted faith and return to his religious roots.
The Berbers fought many invading forces over the years, and their violent response to the Islamic invasion was possibly not fuelled by religious beliefs. Fanatically independent, they had been subjected to Roman rule and were determined not to be conquered again. The invasion of the Arabs into their lands was resisted ferociously, and they saw the conflict with the warriors of Islam as a mere “continuation of a fight against the Romans”.
It is highly probable that Dihya joined the battle against the Arabs around the time of Aksel’s reversion to Judaism, just as many of her fellow tribal members did. Ibn-Khaldun suggested that the conflict between the Arabs and the Amazigh was another form of the struggle between nomadic and settled people repeated throughout history, rather than a fight with origins in conflicting beliefs. Regardless of her motives, Dihya was a determined and effective soldier, earning herself widespread respect and authority.
Late in the 7 th century, chief Aksel was captured by Arab soldiers and forced to disband his army. After his release or escape, however, the king of Altava went right back to fighting and reformed his army to take on the Arabs once again. This time, he succeeded in defeating them and killing their leader, Uqba ibn Nafi. Upon his death, Aksel was succeeded by either his wife or another female relative, but the ruler of the successor was very brief. By around 690 AD, Dihya became commander of the Berber army.
Having already proved her worth as a soldier, Dihya cemented her reputation as a formidable military opponent. When the Islamic troops returned to invade again under the command of Hassan ben Naaman, they were prepared for renewed bitter fighting with the Berbers, but they didn’t count on Dihya. Invading with 45,000 soldiers, Hassan was supremely confident of victory, especially so when he learned that he was opposed by a mere woman. Dihya first attempted to use diplomacy to neutralise the Arabs, but all offers of a negotiated peace were dismissed and refused. Instead, Hassan
responded with his own ultimatum advising that he would grant peace only if Dihya converted to Islam and recognised the supremacy of the Muslim authorities. According to some sources, Dihya stalwartly refused with the declaration “I shall die in the religion I was born to”.
In an entirely polemic version of events, French historian Henri Garrot suggests that Dihya actually converted to Islam rather than confront the mighty force of Hassan, but the Arab leader advanced to attack her army anyway. Mubarak Milli rejects this theory, claiming Garrot simply wanted to discredit the great Amazigh queen while suggesting that the Islamic invasion brought stability and prosperity to the region.
Another source provides evidence consistent with this belief, suggesting that Hassan sent an envoy to Dihya demanding that she accept Islam as the religion of her people. When Dihya refused, Hassan’s representative explained that they wanted to bring the Amazigh people into the light of Islam. Dihya again challenged him saying that she has read the Koran but found “nothing new in it” and that it seemed somewhat regressive “especially in regards to the relations between men and women”. Inevitably this sparked a heated argument about the status of men and women, and reportedly Dihya angrily retorted “I am not inferior to you and you are not my equal!”
In this version of events, Dihya is as familiar with the premises of the Islamic religion as she is both Judaism and Christianity, although it is the latter that she has embraced. Hassan’s envoy becomes enraged at her refusal to accept what she refers to as his “false prophet”, and called her “a witch and
a sorceress”. Her supporters counselled caution, but Dihya remained defiant and pointed out that if they converted to Islam, her people would lose both their lands and their freedom, which was ultimately the same fate they faced if they were defeated in battle. Declaring that they had nothing to
lose and everything to win, she reasoned that the Berbers would need to fight.
It would seem that Dihya’s faith, loyalty and her apparent ability to speak with animals and foresee the future swayed many of her people. Berbers from all over the region came together to join forces with the woman they called Kahina, meaning “the diviner, the fortuneteller”. Although some have asserted that Dihya’s reputation as a sorceress was bestowed on her by her opponents, others contend that her gift of prophecy gave her the capacity to predict the exact formation of opponents’ troops, the direction of their attack and the source of their possible reinforcements. Inevitably this inspired her fellow Berbers and, although her victories were hard-won, they were nonetheless decisive.
Some accounts suggest that although her forces were significantly outnumbered by the Muslim army, Dihya was able to secure an unlikely victory by using her knowledge of the environment. Realising the untenability of her position, Dihyahad ordered a retreat. However, as she perceived the strong winds blowing in the enemy direction she ordered that large fires be set, sending great clouds of smoke at the Arab soldiers. This stopped the enemy advance, but also obscured her forces from Hassan and his men. Strategically, it also meant that to launch another attack the Arabs would have to cross a great swathe of burnt wasteland with no resources at hand. Hassan promptly retreated and spent the next five years in Egypt, licking his wounds and preparing for a second invasion.
There is evidence that indicates the success of her fire-brand approach inspired Dihya to instigate a scorched-earth policy that would, in time, prove disastrous both for her and for her people. Believing that the Arabs were primarily after the riches her land had to offer them, Dihya decided that by destroying everything of worth she would dissuade the Arabs from further invasions. Historian Edward Gibbon records the Berber Queen as urging her people to destroy all their precious metals and raze their cities so that “when the avarice of our foes shall be destitute of temptation, perhaps they will cease to disturb the tranquillity of a warlike people”.
Dihya began her campaign by burning productive fields and melting down precious metals, before going on to tear down cities and towns and destroy all fortifications. Sadly, although this may have made the Berber lands less attractive to invaders, it also meant that the livelihood of her own people
was seriously compromised. With no hope of growing food in their charred fields and blackened orchards and with no roof over their heads, many town and city residents became nomadic and wandered through the barren wasteland left after years of war. Inevitably, this damaged her reputation and popularity considerably... if it was true, that is.
Gibbon is pretty scathing in his treatment of the Amazigh queen, saying that her policy of “universal ruin” probably terrified those city inhabitants who shared neither her beliefs nor her nomadic upbringing. According to Gibbon, she was an unworthy leader who based her powers on “blind and
rude idolatry” and the “baseless fabric of her superstition”. Others, however, are suspicious of claims that Dihya was responsible for the scorched-earth policy, pointing out that it was a technique the Arabs had used previously in both Libya and Egypt. The Arabs found this was an effective way of subduing the enemy population and as they were more concerned with recruiting people for religious conversion than winning great territories and riches, this was a successful approach.
If the Arabs did instigate the scorched-earth policy, it proved effective even if many historians have attributed the blame to the Berber Queen. Regardless of who decided on the tactic, it certainly had the effect of demoralising the people and all but destroying their faith in their sorcerer queen. For many, a Muslim victory seemed inevitable, and perhaps even Dihya herself doubted her capacity to continue resisting the Arabs. Some even suggest that she later surrendered one of her own sons to Hasan .
Unlike the morally pure Joan of Arc, Dihya was a passionate woman who was “addicted to the lusts of the flesh with all her youthful flaming temper”. She had two sons by two different men and apparently had three husbands on hand to satisfy her carnal needs.
Rumour has it that just as she surrendered one of her own sons to Islam, she subsequently adopted one young man from amongst the Arabic prisoners she captured during her conflicts with Hassan. In a strangely generous act, Dihya was known to favour releasing any prisoners she took, but this one enemy soldier named Haled ben Yazid she took as her own son. Little is said of Yazid after this event, but another son seems to have played an instrumental role in her eventual defeat.
According to some sources, when the invading Arabs returned amongst them was one of Dihya’s own sons who had turned away from Judaism and converted to Islam. Although it is unclear as to whether the returning Muslim army was lead by Hassan or his successor Musa, their defeat of Dihya is not in dispute.
Assuming that Hassan was leading the Arab army with Dihya’s son by his side, the Berber queen he found waiting for him in the Aures mountains was a very different woman to the one who had defeated him some years before. Either as a consequence of the scorched-earth policy or through bribery and corruption, many of those who had stood behind the Dihya had defected to Hassan’s army, leaving her heavily outnumbered. To further her disadvantage, her traitorous offspring knew her usual methods and was able to inform Hassan on her probable tactics.
With so much against her, it’s hard to believe Dihya even bothered to engage with the opposition at all, but she did, and her small army fought so bravely and with such ferocity even their enemies couldn’t fail to admire them. As any true warrior should, it is believed that Dihya was killed sword in hand fighting for her beliefs and her country. She was decapitated, and her head was given to Hassan as a prize of war. Reportedly out of respect for his former opponent, he went on to take good care of her sons, bringing them up as his own and giving them the tools to follow in their mother’s footsteps, leading their own armies into battle.
Things weren’t so good for the Berber people after Dihya’s defeat and death; thousands were sold into slavery by the victorious Arab oppressors. Those few that stayed free ended up in isolated communities, holding out as long as they could against the formidable Arab onslaught. Some are said to have taken their own lives rather than convert to Islam, but by around 750, North Africa was almost exclusively Islamic, with little of Dihya’s Jewish legacy remaining.
Despite this, Dihya has proved an important figure for a variety of people and cultures. Noted author and historian Abdelmajid Hannoum stated that “[N]o legend has articulated or promoted as many myths, nor served as many ideologies as this one”. Dihya has been reborn and reinvented numerous times, serving as a figurehead for the Berbers and ironically, even the Muslims. According to some Muslim believers, Dihya didn’t die on the battlefield but was rather defeated, after which she converted to Islam and became a model Muslim. This seems a highly unlikely outcome.
Nevertheless, over the past 10 centuries or so Dihya has been adopted by a wide range of different political and social groups with diverse agendas covering everything from Berber cultural and ethnic rights to feminism and Arab nationalism. The Arabs often present her as a woman in possession of supernatural powers but who eventually, recognised the legitimacy of Islam, went on to encourage her sons to adopt the religion and create unity between the Berbers and their former enemies.
Part of Dihya’s chameleon capacity appears to have come from the Berbers’ own fluidity when it came to religious beliefs. According to Ibn Khaldun, the Berbers adopted the beliefs of pretty much every group of people that ruled over them, first adopting Judaism while under the influence of the Yemen kings before swiftly switching to Christian beliefs following the Roman invasion. Such changeability has meant the legend of Dihya could be claimed by virtually anyone, although it is as an example of the Berbers’ religious, gender, and ethnic tolerance that she is most remembered.
Dihya has been so celebrated by the Berber people that a statue of her was erected in Algeria as recently as 2003. Built by Amazigh activists, the 9-foot monument was constructed as part of a movement to preserve the remains of what they believe to have been a fortress erected by Dihya during the Muslim invasion. Far from uncontroversial, however, the unveiling of the statue was ignored by the national press, even though the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika attended the ceremony. Cynthia Becker suggests that Bouteflika’s presence was designed to appease the activists while the lack of press coverage was at the instigation of the government, suggesting a conflict of interest .
For some, the defiant woman warrior immortalised in the effigy represents a period of history and religious activism they would rather forget. Given that the Amazigh are now Muslims, some see the statue as an act of blasphemy, celebrating a woman who strongly resisted their own religion. Indeed, Dihya has been celebrated as a “prototypical antihero, representing everything counter to Islamic values”.
Although in more recent times, Dihya has been taken to symbolise feminism amongst the Amazigh people, she also embodies the ethnic rights of this small populace. Certainly during her lifetime, the Amazigh enjoyed relative freedom and women were allowed leadership status – a relatively unusual
aspect of any culture at the time. Not only was ancestry traced using the female line, but property was also passed down from daughter to daughter. This would come to an abrupt end with the introduction of Islam to the region, but Dihya’s dramatic attempts at protecting her people have never been forgotten.
It is notable that many powerful women have been associated with having some kind of supernatural powers, and Dihya is no exception. Not only is she described as being unusually tall and "great of hair", but legend also suggests that she lived for over 100 years and when she was inspired would let out her hair and beat her breast, suggesting a state of religious ecstasy. In addition to her prophetic capabilities, it has also been suggested that the Kahina’s revolt against the Arabs was foretold by the appearance of a comet. Legends and rumours have also swirled around Dihya’s private life, suggesting that she married twice, once to a Greek and once to a fellow Amazigh.
In another story of Dihya or, on this occasion, Dahi-Yah, the beautiful young woman is ordered by the leader of another tribe to become his wife. Initially, she refused, but when the chieftain went on to intimidate and massacre her tribe, she relented and married him. The tribal chief was an unpleasant man who forced himself on her and beat her prior to their wedding. On their first night of wedded misery, however, Dihya took her revenge “smashing his skull with a nail” and ending his tyranny.
Whatever Dihya was, in terms of religion and power she has firmly established herself as an icon and symbol of the Amazigh people’s refusal to be subordinated or converted into this or that set of religious beliefs. To this day, Dihya remains an important and popular figurehead for Berber activists who feel her power and position not only emphasises the gender equality of their culture but also their liberal beliefs and willingness to accept people of all ethnic and religious origins.
The Amazigh people continue to fight for recognition as a distinct political, ethnic and linguistic group. In certain places like Libya, even speaking the Amasizgh language can lead to arrest and charges of espionage. Meanwhile, in Morocco, the Amazigh continue to fight against both economic deprivations and to have their native tongue Tamazight recognised as an official language alongside Arabic.
It is little wonder then that a woman who was prepare to put her life on the line to secure independence and freedom for her people should continue to be celebrated among the Amazigh. Many girls are named for the Berber Queen, and her image appears regularly in the crude graffiti of Amazigh activities, serving as a visible symbol of self-determination, resistance, and freedom.
History's Greatest Warriors is available on Amazon as a digital download or in paperback on most online bookstores.
Mark Rodger and Steven Lazaroff live in Canada.