Tamar of Georgia presided over a period of unprecedented expansion, as well as an era of peace and prosperity that would never be seen in the nation again. Under her reign, Georgian historical writing began to resemble something recognisable as history, not a collection of biblical stories, folktales, and kings. Consequently, Tamar receives more space in the Kartlis Tskhovreba—the Georgian chronicles—than any other monarch. Despite this, Tamar is one of the most difficult monarchs to get to know on a personal level, because of the way she is written about. She was a fierce woman who ordered massacres, conquered enemies, and freed the subjugated, but she was also a kind and compassionate woman who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and helped to raise orphans. She was, as all humans are, a complex, multi-faceted person.
According to the chronicles however, she was exactly one of those things. Despite her many military achievements, she is constantly described as kind, cheerful, and righteous, the way that dedopalebi, or queens, always were. However, Tamar was not a dedopali (დედოფალი) (the Georgian singular for queen) she was a mepe (მეფე) or king. There was, and is, no word for queen regnant in the Georgian language, and the way mepebi (kings) and dedopalebi (queens) are described in the chronicles is strictly divided by gender. Dedopalebi are always beautiful, cheerful, and pious. They are one-dimensional and receive almost no mention. Mepebi, on the other hand, are made out to be complex, three-dimensional people who can subjugate their enemies and bring peace to the land, but also transport their enormous library across the Caucasus, and almost miss battles because they were reading.
Being the first female monarch, the chroniclers struggle in their descriptions of Tamar and her actions. Instead of recording Tamar’s more “kingly” achievements or empire building the way they would for a mepe, Tamar is relegated to the pious, gracious role of a dedopali, while her second husband and generals receive the credit, despite the fact that Tamar was involved in the planning of campaigns. Instead of being addressed in her full complexity the way the kings before her were, she is rendered one dimensional—impassive and pious to the point where much of what is written about her reads more like hagiography than biography.
This is starkly apparent in Tamar’s first marriage at the beginning of her independent reign after the death of her father. Worried about the future of the Bagratid succession and keen for trade from the Kievan Rus, a marriage with Yuri Bogolyubsky was contracted in secret by Tamar’s aunt and advisors. When the young prince arrived in Georgia, everyone was deeply impressed with his strength and good looks, but knew little about him. When told she was to marry Yuri, Tamar replied “How can you expect me to take such a hasty step? We know nothing of the conduct of this foreigner, nor of his deeds, or his valor, nature or disposition. Let me wait till we see his virtues or shortcomings” (Ezosmodzghvari, 2014, 289).
Tamar’s protests fell on deaf ears. Her advisors “opposed her, talking of her childlessness, of the barrenness of her house, demanding a leader for the army, and pressing on her soul by every means.” (Ezosmodzghvari, 2014, 289). Tamar was forced into the marriage, despite knowing it was a bad idea.
Tamar’s protest to her first marriage, though short and quiet, echoes when placed in the context of Georgian historical writing. It is common in the Kartlis Tskhovreba for Tamar’s words and actions in a moment of crisis to be calm and regulated, but then for the later actions of her or her men to be on a completely different scale. The most dramatic example of this was when 1,200 Armenian Christians were slaughtered on Easter morning in 1209. In one sentence, Tamar’s heart “blazed with anger.” In the next, her second husband and her trusted generals massacre 12,000 Muslims in the Sultanate of Ardabil during Eid. Tamar’s words of the moment frequently seem to not match up with her actions, and it is quite likely that her “words,” many of which were later composed by a chronicler, did not match her actions. This was seen in the case of her first marriage as well.
There was a short honeymoon period, but it did not last long. Yuri soon turned to drunkenness and fornication, and verbally abused his wife in public. Eventually, he started to torture Tamar’s subjects, and she divorced him. The two recorded accounts of this time say:
“Humble and kind, reasonable and charming, Tamar endured that trial for two whole years, or maybe even more…He [Tamar’s advisors] now prepared the exile of the prince…Tamar – who was kind and by no means inclined to anger – shedding tears, sent him [Yuri] into exile, providing him with countless riches and treasures. She did not put him to death, though he deserved it…” (Chqondidi, 2014, 245).
“Tamar, like an anvil, cheerfully endured for two and a half years the vices of the Russian, [Yuri] and no one besides her could stand it anymore… All that became unbearable for Tamar, and she said to him [Yuri] in front of all the others: “I am taught by the law of God that a man should not leave his first conjugal bed, but you should not patiently stay with a man who does not keep his bed pure… I am unable to straighten the shadow of a crooked tree, and feel no guilt on my side; I must shake off the dust which has stuck to me from you.” With that, she got up and left him. And Queen Rusudan and all the princes banished him.” (Ezosmodzghvari, 2014, 290).
In the first source Tamar is described only as tenderhearted, almost seeming sad to send her faithless, dissolute husband away. In the second, Tamar’s frustration and anger is surrounded with religious sentiment, and her reasons for staying with Yuri are also religious in nature. While there is no doubt that Tamar was a very devout woman, in this case her allusions might have run a little deeper than faith. In medieval Georgia, religion was the only place where women could hold legitimate power without contest, and Tamar, whose reign began with a civil war, needed to be able to use her piety to legitimise her rule. To be described as wantonly casting off a first husband, as foul as he may be, would have given people doubt about her ability to rule. It was later evidenced by her daughter, Rusudan of Georgia, that a female monarch who was not seen to be perfectly pious risked losing control of her own people.
While the Tamar of the chronicles may have shed tears over her husband’s departure, it is impossible to guess how she actually felt when she sent him away. While she did spare his life and give him a large allowance, this may not be the display of tenderheartedness that many scholars paint it as being. Yuri had a large coterie of noblemen who liked him, enough to rebel with him when he later returned to Georgia, and so the kind treatment of him might not have been done out of mercy but out of political expediency; it is, as it often is with Tamar, difficult to tell.
This cuts to the heart of one of the greatest difficulties when it comes to studying Tamar; she is unknowable. There are few remaining contemporary sources describing her reign, and because the chroniclers painted her so firmly into the traditional corner of a dedopali, it is more difficult to know Tamar than it is to know her contemporary monarchs and consorts. She is praised endlessly for her charitable works and good deeds, but how many of them were altruistic and how many were done out of political expediency? Her second husband is credited as a great conqueror, with Tamar as his patient, pious support, but how much of Davit Soslan’s success did Tamar have a hand in? It is impossible to guess, and unless more sources come to light, we may never know.
Abashidze, Medea, trans. The Chronicle of Giorgi Lasha and His Time. Tbilisi, Georgia: Artanuji Publishing, 2014.
Chqondidi, Theodore. The History and Eulogy of Monarchs. Translated by Dmitri Gamq’relidze. Tbilisi, Georgia: Artanuji Publishing, 2014.
Ezosmodzghvari, Basili.The Life of Tamar, the Great Queen of Queens. Translated by Dmitri Gamq’relidze. Tbilisi, Georgia: Artanuji Publishing, 2014.
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.
Targamadze, Zurab. 2017. “Social and Legal Status of Women in Medieval Georgia.” International Journal of Culture and History 3, no. 1 (2017): 72-79