QUAINT #10 Cahina from “A Royal Enchantress” by Leo Charles Dessar

Cahina was created by Leo Charles Dessar and appears in A Royal Enchantress (1900). Dessar (1847-1924) was a New York judge who was a part of the corrupt Tammany Hall political system.

There was a real Cahina (alternatively, “Kahena” or “Kahina”), a Queen of the Berbers in the 7th and 8th Century C.E. who fought against the Muslim invasion. Gibbons wrote about her in Volume 2, Chapter 514 of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

The Greeks were expelled, but the Arabians were not yet masters of the country. In the interior provinces the Moors or Berbers, so feeble under the first Caesars, so formidable to the Byzantine princes, maintained a disorderly resistance to the religion and power of the successors of Mohammed. Under the standard of their queen Cahina the independent tribes acquired some degree of union and discipline; and as the Moors respected in their females the character of a prophetess, they attacked the invaders with an enthusiasm similar to their own. The veteran bands of Hassan were inadequate to the defence of Africa: the conquests of an age were lost in a single day; and the Arabian chief overwhelmed by the torrent, retired to the confines of Egypt, and expected, five years, the promised succours of the caliph. After the retreat of the Saracens, the victorious prophetess assembled the Moorish chiefs, and recommended a measure of strange and savage policy.

“Our cities,” said she, “and the gold and silver which they contain, perpetually attract the arms of the Arabs. These vile metals are not the objects of our ambition; we content ourselves with the simple productions of the earth. Let us destroy these cities; let us bury in their ruins those pernicious treasures; and when the avarice of our foes shall be destitute of temptation, perhaps they will cease to disturb the tranquility of a warlike people.” The proposal was accepted with unanimous applause. From Tangier to Tripoli the buildings, or at least the fortifications, were demolished, the fruit trees were cut down, the means of subsistence were extirpated, fertile and populous garden was changed into desert, and the historians of a more recent period could discern the frequent traces of the prosperity and devastation of their ancestors. Such is the tale of the modern Arabians.

In the foreword to A Royal Enchantress Dessar wrote that he was struck by Gibbon’s passage: “the meager account of this beautiful Prophetess Queen of the Berbers was inspiring, yet irritating: it suggested so much, yet told so little.” From this Dessar spun an entertaining historical fantasy.

A Royal Enchantress is about the fictional Cahina, a Queen of the Berbers of North Africa in 697 C.E. She is descended of Jewish, Berber, and Greek/Byzantine forebears, but as a child was taken from her mother, the Queen, and raised by the high priest Askalon. Within a few years Cahina had mastered the lore of the priests and even grasped the Higher Mysteries. When the King dies, Cahina becomes the Queen of the Berbers, who at this time lived in a glorious city. Cahina out-maneuvers Askalon, who lusts after her, and endures a loveless marriage with another monarch for the sake of her kingdom. Eventually, however, she finds love, in the form of Cornelius, a handsome Greek soldier, and happiness in the birth of her son. But nothing lasts forever, and when the Muslim armies invade her country, Cahina’s armies defeat the invaders in one battle but fail to capture the Muslims’ leader, Hassan. Cahina, sure that the Muslims will return in greater numbers, convinces her followers to raze their own cities and farmland and bury their treasures, on the grounds that with no city to loot and no treasures to find, the Muslims won’t be interested and will leave them alone. But the self-destruction of the Berber city fails to stop the Muslims, who return and destroy the Berber armies, capture Cahina, and behead her after she refuses to convert to Islam.

One likely comparison for A Royal Enchantress is Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô. Both novels portray exotic historical locales. But Dessar is less profligate and decadent than Flaubert. Dessar is not Flaubert’s equal as a stylist, nor does Dessar layer on the vast amount of historically accurate detail that Flaubert did or try to be impressionistic, as Flaubert was. But Dessar goes beyond Salammbô’s first-this-happened-and-then-that-happened, history-in-motion style. A Royal Enchantress is more of a classic heroic fantasy, with the beautiful heroine (Cahina), the handsome hero (Cornelius), and the dastardly villain (first Askalon and then Hassan, the leader of the Muslim armies). A Royal Enchantress is colorful, with a brisk pace and a good amount of historical detail, although the detail is not overwhelming in the Flaubertian fashion.

The characterization is concise, and sufficient space is given to the characters’ interior lives that they gain a decent amount of depth. Dessar does not shy away from the cruelty and horrors of the time, either; there are flayings and sacrifices to Moloch accompanying the feats of arms and knightly duels. But Dessar does not engage in the casual anti-Semitism of so many other Victorian novelists, and most unusually makes an effort to treat Muslims fairly.

Cahina herself is a vividly drawn, larger than life personality. She is influenced to some degree by H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, but Dessar is a skillful enough writer to make Cahina more than just another Ayesha clone. Cahina is chaste but haughty and devout in her worship of the Phoenician and Egyptian gods. Dessar spends time exploring Cahina’s childhood and adolescence so that the reader sees the source of Cahina’s attitude. Cahina is not just intelligent but is also clever, outwitting her enemies as queen and slyly manipulating her people for the good of the kingdom. Cahina is a prophetess given visions of faraway events, the past, and the future by her “guardian angel.” The downside to this ability is that she receives her visions while possessed, perhaps by that same guardian angel, and while possessed she does things she sometimes regrets later, like ordering the destruction of the Berber kingdom. Besides the power of prophecy, she has a strong animal magnetism, can cause visions among others, and can control others’ minds.

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