Tamar the Great: A Biography

By Irene Carstairs
Feature Image: Restored fresco from Betania monastery. Tamar is pictured in green. Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Queentamar_giorgi.jpg

Today is the first of our special guest blog posts from the fantastic Irene Carstairs! You can follow her on Twitter @CarstairsIrene or see more of her work at http://www.thathistorynerd.com/.

From the late eleventh century to the early thirteenth century the kingdom of Georgia enjoyed a golden age. Out of the four Bagratid monarchs who ruled during this era, the most influential was Tamar, the first female king of Georgia.

In 1177, Georgia was ravaged by a civil war, the second in as many generations. Tamar’s father, Giorgi III, worried that the country would plunge into another war upon his death. Giorgi had no sons, only two daughters, the eldest of whom, Tamar, was barely 18 years old in 1178. That year, Giorgi made her his heir, and crowned her co-king in the citadel of Uplistsikhe.

Tamar and Giorgi ruled jointly for about six years. Not much of Tamar’s life during this time is known, but according to The Kartlis Tskhovreba, the Georgian chronicles, Tamar was serious and hardworking, and virtually took over running the government.

Giorgi died in Kakheti on March 27, 1184. Shortly after, his sister Rusudan assumed regency for Tamar, who was still considered underage. Widow of two sultans, Rusudan was a hardened politician. She had, more than once, served as a diplomatic envoy for her father and husbands, and she had taken over the duties of queen after the death of Tamar’s mother, Burdukhan. Rusudan had raised Tamar in her court, and Tamar trusted her implicitly.

Tamar’s reign was challenged from the beginning. Shortly after Giorgi’s death, a faction of eristavi, the princely class, insisted on having Tamar re-crowned. In the ceremony, Tamar would be given the sword and scepter by the eristavi, symbolizing that her power derived from the eristavi, and not from God, as all her ancestors had done. This made Tamar dangerously dependent on the eristavi for her power.

The eristavi demanded that a house of lords be formed. The house of lords would take over the governance of Georgia, reducing the monarch to a figurehead, effectively ending Bagratid rule. This went beyond the pale, and Tamar had Qutlu Arslan, the leader of the eristavi arrested, and the rest of the offenders fled. A bitter standoff ensued, with princely houses divided between the monarch and the rebel lords. Eventually, Tamar sent two noblewomen to negotiate with the rebels.

Tamar offered generous terms. She would pardon all of the offenders except for Qutlu, and everything would return to normal. After some negotiation, the rebels surrendered, and all were pardoned, though Qutlu retired from public life.

A view of the Hall of Queen Tamar in the cave city of Uplistsikhe.
Image: Irene Carstairs, 2019

Nobility now in line, Tamar needed to wed, but a suitable husband was difficult to find. The law declared that the monarch must marry a foreigner, and in addition, Tamar needed to marry a man who would not balk at playing the role of consort. It was a delicate decision, one which her council did not treat as scrupulously as they should. They selected Yuri Bogolubsky, a dispossessed Rus prince. Yuri came with excellent trade connections, but he also came with a nasty temper and an unwillingness to step aside and let his wife rule.

Yuri was summoned to Tbilisi without Tamar’s knowledge, and she was shocked when she was told that she was to marry him. She vehemently objected, protesting that it was dangerous to make a stranger her consort. She pleaded with her council to wait and see what sort of man Yuri was. However, she was overruled, and Tamar and Yuri married in 1185.

Yuri was initially popular, winning land and battles in Armenia, and many of the ruling class were willing to overlook his drinking, fornicating, and verbal abuse of the God-appointed monarch. However, when Yuri began to torture commoners, his abuses could no longer be overlooked. Tamar divorced Yuri, and he was packed off to Constantinople with a generous allowance.

Reliquary belonging to Tamar that contains a fragment of the True-Cross. Currently in the possession of the Georgian National Museum.
Image:https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/The_XIIc.cross_of_Queen_Tamara_of_Georgia-_Gold%2C_rubies%2C_emerald_and_pearls.jpg

With Yuri far on the horizon, Tamar was faced with remarrying. This time, however, she chose her spouse, and Tamar chose her fifth cousin, the Ossetian prince Davit Soslan.

Davit was not an advantageous choice; he brought no lands, wealth, or new political connections. However, Davit was a skilled military leader, and he and Tamar worked well together. They had known each other since childhood, and they were, if not in love, good friends. Davit had been raised with the expectation that Tamar would take the throne, and could be trusted to not undermine his wife. The couple married in 1188, and quickly produced two children.

As king, Tamar was constantly on the move. Georgia was in the centre of a global religious conflict, and Tamar spent most of her life at war, following her armies across the Caucasus. Officially, Tamar did not lead armies; she accompanied the army, gave rousing speeches, and retired to the nearest monastery to pray for victory while her husband led. However, it has been theorized that she might have had more influence in military matters than official accounts state.

Tamar and Davit had numerous important victories. They defeated two rebellions headed by her ex-husband; battled the dreaded Rum Sultan; “liberated” Armenia; and established an empire in Trebizond. Under Tamar, Georgia expanded to its greatest size, and became the most powerful country in the region.

Whilst there was always fighting on the frontiers, Georgia experienced a renaissance. Art, especially literature, flourished, encouraged by the patronage of Tamar and her court. The biggest work to come out of this era was Shota Rustaveli’s epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, a work commissioned by and dedicated to Tamar. It tells the story of  the knight Avtandil as he adventures to win the hand of fair Tinatin, the queen regnant of Arabia, and thinly-veiled Tamar stand-in. Though the story focuses mostly on Avtandil, it centralized a powerful female monarch, which, combined with the work’s popularity, provided a boost to Tamar’s authority.

Tamar’s Georgia was incredibly wealthy, and she ensured the wealth was spread around. Tamar cleared debts and allotted 10% of the treasury to the lower classes. During her reign “the peasants were like nobles, the nobles like princes, and the princes like kings.” (Toumanoff, 1966, 611).

It was also a time of mercy; Tamar repealed her father’s harsh criminal penalties; outlawed torture and the death penalty; and refused to use whipping or blinding and castration as punishments. Remarriages were approved and Tamar continued Georgia’s great tradition of religious tolerance.

Mural from the Chapel of the Dormiton at Vardzia depicting Tamar and her father. Expanding the cave monastery of Vardzia was a joint project of Tamar and her father, and is one of the greatest building works of her reign.
Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Vardzia_Chapel_fresco.jpg

Tamar died, likely from cancer, on January 18th, 1213 at Agarani fortress, near Tbilisi. Her death was met with intense mourning, and “the sounds of moaning, and mourning was among the Georgian people, as if they had been sucked alive into hell.” (Metreveli and Jones, 2014, 315)

The exact location of her remains is unknown. There are many theories; Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Gelati monastery, the Monastery of the Holy Cross. One legend even claims that she sleeps in a cave waiting to arise and resume the throne. Wherever she now lies, it is undeniable that she was the most powerful ruler in Georgian history. She built an empire, founded another, and left a legacy of prosperity that still prompts Georgians to look back on her rule as a golden age.

Recommended Reading

Kakabadze, Sargis. Queen Tamar: Her Significance. Translated by Michael P. Willis. Tbilisi, Georgia: Amazon Digital Editions, 2017.

Met’reveli, Roin, and Stephen Jones, eds. Kartlis Tskhovreba. Tbilisi, Georgia: Artanuji Publishing, 2014.

Rayfield, Donald. Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia. London, United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, 2013.

Peacock, A.C.S. “Georgia and the Anatolian Turks in the 12th and 13th Centuries.” Anatolian Studies 56 (2006): 127-146.

Anchabadze, Zaza. European Georgia. Tbilisi: n.p, 2014.

Toumanoff, Cyril. “Armenia and Georgia.” In The Cambridge Medieval History, 593-637. Vol. IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1966.

Toumanoff, Cyril. 1940. “On the Relationship between the Founder of the Empire of Trebizond and the Georgian Queen Thamar.” Speculum 15.3 (1940): 299-312.

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