King Tamar, the Caucasian Queen

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Tamar’s beauty was eulogised in folk songs, myths and literature (Image © Georgia Tiflis Tbilisi)

The greatest of Georgian rulers

Text Sophie Ibboson

In a world dominated by men, and where education, political power and military strength – all the preserves of men – were the most highly prized of attributes, any ruler who possessed them would be a king. Now and then however, history throws a curve ball. King Tamar was a woman and a great one too.

The Life of Tamar

The daughter of King George III and Queen Burdukhan of Georgia, Tamar was born in 1166. King George was concerned that he would be overthrown in favour of his nephew Demna, and so made two explicit demands: that the boy be castrated and blinded (he would in fact die from these wounds) and that his own infant daughter would become his co-ruler when she reached the age of 12. Georgia had never previously had a female ruler – it simply wasn’t the done thing – but the assumption amongst the elite was that she would play second-fiddle to her father and then to a suitable husband. Tamar however, had other ideas.

To the relief of the nobles, the first six years of Tamar’s rule were uneventful; she ruled alongside her father. Upon his death in 1184 however, she refused to embody the meek characteristics they expected of the so-called weaker sex. She formed alliances with other senior royals and the head of the Georgian Church, Michael IV Mirianisdze, reinforcing her legitimacy to rule. Though at first she was coerced into an unsatisfactory marriage with the Rus Prince Yuri, Tamar subsequently accused him publicly of drunkenness and sodomy. The nobles were forced to approve her divorce, and exiled the disgraced Yuri to Constantinople. Though Yuri did twice attempt to return, Tamar found herself a new suitor – the Alan Prince David Soslan – and together they kept him at bay. Tamar had married David for love.

The view from Tamar’s Tower of Chazhashi and Murqmeli villages, one of Georgia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Image © 123RF)

Tamar’s Territories

Given Georgia’s fertile lands and strategic location, nestled between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea it was inevitable that neighbouring powers would eye Tamar’s territories enviously. Rather than being cowed by their power however, Tamar embarked upon an ambitious plan of expansion, making use of her new husband’s previous experience as a military commander to make and implement bold moves.

Shirvan (now in Azerbaijan) and Ani (Armenia) fell first, swiftly followed by Bjni and Dvin. Far from the weak and easily-controlled queen they had expected, Tamar was ruffling serious feathers across the Caucasus and into Persia. Her foes in Kars (Turkey) and Ardabil (Iran) fought hard, but it must have seemed to them that this crusading Christian queen had God on her side. She was able to found a new empire at Trebizond (Turkey) in 1204, stretching out along the Black Sea coast and exploited the weakening Byzantine Empire to raise Georgia’s profile and influence on the international stage. Tamar’s envoys were received as far away as Jerusalem and, unlike other Christian pilgrims, they were allowed free passage into the city.

A 50 lari banknote, Georgia’s currency, depicting Tamar and an ancient centaur (Image © Ivan Vdovin/Alamy)

Georgia’s Golden Age

Tamar’s accomplishments were not only on the battlefield, however. She was a great reformer and able to unify numerous kingdoms and principalities within Georgia, ushering in what is considered to be the country’s Golden Age. Chroniclers in Georgia and abroad praised her attributes and power. Tamar was proclaimed as “Master of the Lands”, “King of Kings”, “Father of Orphans” and “Champion of the Messiah”. The title King was preferred to Queen as it emphasised the fact that Tamar ruled in her own right and not as the consort of her husband.

Tribute poured into the Georgian court, and trade in the empire flourished. Tamar’s royal treasury boomed. Ecclesiastical art, literature and magnificent illustrated manuscripts all flourished. Under Tamar’s patronage, new cathedrals were founded and iconography was modified to highlight her unprecedented beauty and learning. The most famous poets of the age, Shota Rustaveli, took inspiration from her life and work. She was eulogised in folk songs and myths were evolved, suggesting that Tamar conceived her son from a sunbeam passing through the window, that she was the goddess of fertility and healing, and like the pagan deity Pirimze before her, she was able to control the weather. Even during her lifetime, Tamar was thought of in almost divine terms. A Graeco-Georgian colophon and late 12th-century Vani Gospels, thought to have been composed at the Romani Monastery in Constantinople at Tamar’s behest, named her as a saint.

Paintings of Tamar can be found in the Church of the Dormition in Vardzia (Image © 123RF)

Tamar died most likely in 1213, near to Tbilisi. Her body was taken first to Mtskheta Cathedral then to the royal necropolis at the Gelati Monastery. But after that the story runs cold. A 13th-century letter from the French knight Guillaume de Bois would suggest that he met Tamar’s son, King Giorgi-Lasha in the Holy Land, transporting his mother’s remains for burial near to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Modern scholars have been as yet unable to establish the whereabouts of her grave.

Throughout her life, Tamar was a woman of fervent faith and she maintained strong links with the Georgian Orthodox church for strategic, personal and spiritual reasons. After her death, the church took the unusual step of canonising her as Saint King Tamar. This was remarkable for two reasons. With the notable exceptions of Saint Nino and Saint Queen Nana of Iberia, both of whom lived some 900 years before Tamar, there were almost no female saints in the Georgian canon. Secondly, like her secular subjects, the Patriarch and other senior church figures continued to refer to Tamar as King.

Born a woman, Tamar had risen through circumstance to be anointed king. She defied every contemporary expectation for her sex and become the greatest of Georgian rulers. Her triumphs are remembered by the Georgian Orthodox Church on her saint’s day, 14 May, but she and her accomplishments deserve to be recognised and celebrated far more widely. Whether as King or Queen, saint or mortal figure, Tamar is an inspiration for us all.

For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 118.

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