The Kingdom of Georgia in Asia Minor, located on the easternmost fringes of the thirteenth-century Christian world, reached the pinnacle of its political power during the reign of Queen Tamara (1169-1212), who reigned from 1184 to 1212. Tamara ruled over the largest territory ever to come under the control of Georgia; during her reign, the kingdom stretched from Azerbaijan, north of present-day Iran, to the borders of Cherkessia, in the North Caucasus.
With an official title of "Tamar Bagrationi, by the will of our Lord, Queen of the Abkhazians, Kartvels, Rans, Kakhs and the Armenians, Shirvan-Shah and Shah-in-Shah and ruler of all East and West," Tamara successfully defended her kingdom against multiple incursions by hostile forces. But within 20 years of her death, Mongol invasions would destroy the governmental and military foundations of the country.
Although the trans-Caucasian state of Georgia in Asia Minor first emerged as an independent state in the first millennium B.C., its Golden Age did not begin until the reign of David Aghmashenebeli (1089-1125), also known as David the Builder. At a time that coincided with the Christian Crusades, David drove the Seljuk Turks from the boundaries of his kingdom. Encouraged by his early success, he then refused to pay tribute to the Turks and urged Georgians to return to their homes from their places of refuge in the mountains. Having gained control of the rural areas of Georgia, David next set out to defeat the Turks in their strongholds in the cities. Finally, on August 12, 1121, David and his Armenian, Kipchak, Ossetian, and Shirvan allies defeated Sultan Mahmud of Iraq at Didgori. In the following year (1122), David took Tbilisi.
By the time of David's death in 1125, Tbilisi was the capital of an empire that stretched from the Black Sea in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west. But David's immediate successors were too embroiled in dispute with each other to be effective rulers, and Georgia would not flourish again until the reign of David's great-granddaughter, Tamara.
In 1177 or 1178, David's grandson, King Georgi III, crowned his 19-year-old daughter by the celebrated beauty Bourduhan, Tamara, co-ruler of Georgia. He also named her as his successor as part of his plan for instituting an orderly succession upon his death, which would take place six years later.
Upon assuming the throne in 1184, the 25-year-old Tamara initially was made a guardian of her paternal aunt, Rusudani. The nobility, anxious to have an heir to the throne, quickly arranged a marriage for the queen. Tamara would marry twice—first in 1187 to a Russian-born prince by the name of George Bobolybski (also known as Georgi Rusi or Prince Yuri) who fell out of the Queen's favor after he sent troops off to fight the Muslims and Persians while he stayed home in debauchery. Within two years the marriage had ended, and Tamara exiled Bobolybski. In 1189, Tamara married again—this time to an Ossetian prince named David Sosland who had been raised in the Georgian court. She would bear David Sosland two children—a son and a daughter; both would later ascend to the throne of Georgia.
Following his exile, Bobolybski attacked Georgia with the aid of Russian troops. Meeting two defeats, Bobolybski fled in exile to the south where he allied himself with Turkish forces. He once more attacked Georgia, but was once again defeated. In May 1204, after Tamara led her troops to victory over the Turks at the Battle of Basiani, she was proclaimed "Our King Tamara." Following her victory over the Turks at Basiani, she won another major victory at Kars in 1205.
During her reign, Tamara tried to play off various factions within the nobility by giving political appointments to generals and nobles. About the time that her son was born in 1194—followed by her daughter one year later—Tamara successfully quelled a rebellion in the mountainous regions of her kingdom. After Byzantium was taken by the Christians during the Fourth Crusade, she sent troops in support of her relative, Alexios Comnenus, who would become the Byzantine emperor in 1205. She maintained firm control over her Muslim semi-protectorates and exacted tribute from some of the provinces in southern Russia.
Several years later, in 1209, the Emir of Ardabil attacked Georgia, killing 12,000 Georgians. Tamara responded by attacking the Emir's forces, killing him and 12,000 of his followers, and taking many others captive as slaves during raids into Persia. Tamara then proceeded with her army into North Persia and neighboring regions.
Queen Tamara of Georgia died on January 18, 1212. Medieval chronicles indicate that some of her subjects offered to die in her place when the queen was on her deathbed. Tamara left her kingdom to her son, Georgi IV Lasha (1212-1223).
Upon learning of the Christian Crusades to Palestine, Georgi Lasha initially made plans to join the campaign. A Mongol attack on Armenia in 1220, however, followed by incursions to the north into Georgia changed his mind, and he instead chose to engage the invaders in battle. But Georgi Lasha and his 90,000 mounted soldiers proved no match for the Mongols, and he died in battle in 1223. Upon his death, Georgi Lasha's sister, Rusudan, became queen. After the Mongols attacked Tbilisi in 1236, Queen Rusudan sought refuge in Kutaisi as the Mongol hordes swept through the country. Following their victory, the Mongols dominated Georgia for more than a century.
It would not be until the fourteenth century that Georgia would finally obtain relief from Mongol rule. Under Georgi V (1314-1346), the country would stop paying tribute to its Mongol overlords and would finally succeed in casting off its oppressors. Under Georgi V, Georgia would once again enjoy some of the prosperity it had experienced under Queen Tamara.
Although some have argued that Tamara's gender was irrelevant to her reign, there clearly were instances where it played a role. Tamara was by some accounts forced by the nobility into her disastrous first marriage by the Georgian nobility, which was anxious to have an heir to the throne in place. The nobles also hoped to find in Tamara's husband a military leader. In still another example, in 1205, the Seljuk ruler Rukn ad-Din gave as the reason for his decision to invade Georgia that fact that Tamara was a woman—a common perception of the time being that women rulers weakened the authority and military power of a kingdom.
According to a source cited by Antony Eastmond, writing in an essay entitled "Gender and Orientalism in Georgia in the Age of Queen Tamar" in Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium, there are indications that men actually when out of their minds after falling in love with Tamara. One is even said to have pined to death.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Mikhail Lermontov wrote a poem entitled "Tamara" that raised even deeper questions about the role of Tamara's gender on her kingdom. In Lermontov's interpretation, Tamara was a slave to her sexual desires and was reduced to seducing a different lover every night to satisfy her lusts. Wrote Lermontov, "That tower on the desperate Terek/Belonged to Tamara, the Queen;/Her beautiful face was angelic,/Her spirit demonic and mean."
But at almost the same time that Lermontov was writing his poem, engravings intended for mass audiences depicting the Queen as passive, gentle, and saintly were in circulation. The inspiration for these engravings was thought to have been a thirteenth-century wall painting of Tamara that had recently been uncovered. The wall painting, which was restored, appeared to have originally shown Tamara to have been a classical Persian beauty, with an oval face, pale coloring, and eyes like pearls. Under restoration, Tamara's face showed more European features with almost virginal beauty.
According to Antony Eastmond, "All accounts of Tamar's reign rely in the end on the assessment of the society from which she came and its attitudes towards women. To Lermontov, Georgia was an exotic, 'oriental,' society with all the attraction and excitement associated with those terms… . This orientalist view was adopted by many other nineteenth-century writers."
Today Lermontov's portrayal of Tamara scarcely registers serious comment among historians who attempt to reconstruct her life. But the engravings, which were based on the reconstructed wall painting, are probably equally misleading in their coloring of the Queen by sentimental yearnings. As a result, Tamara has tended to be portrayed by history as either a siren or a saint.
During the reign of Queen Tamara, the Kingdom of Georgia experienced a burst of activity in architecture and literature. The kingdom also enjoyed advancements in science and agriculture. Under Tamara's rule, palaces and churches were built throughout Georgia. Construction of the Metechi Church was completed after she was enthroned and even the minor churches in the kingdom were adorned with frescoes. Shota Rustaveli wrote his epic "The Knight in the Panther Skin" as an ode to the Queen. Book illumination reached new levels and metalworking thrived.
During Tamara's reign, Tbilisi occupied an important position along the trade routes. Traders traveling east and west passed through the city, as did merchants from the mountains in the north and the lands to the south. A variety of languages must have filled the streets as merchants haggled over the prices of such exotic goods as spices and carpets. Buffer states paid tribute to the queen. During his travels through the country some years after Tamara's reign, Marco Polo (1254-1324) reportedly called Georgia "a handsome city, around which are settlements and many fortified posts."
Under Tamara's rule, Georgia acquired a parliament; this achievement came approximately 25 years before the Magna Carta was signed in England (1215). It was reportedly at the parliament's direction that Tamara divorced her first husband.
Antony Eastmond quotes from a text that is reputed to date from the early thirteenth century which mourns Tamara's passing: "In those times we had nothing but the name of Tamar[a] on our lips; acrostics in honor of the queen were written on the walls of houses; rings; knives and pilgrims' staves were adorned with her praises. Every man's tongue strove to utter something worthy of Tamar[a]'s name; ploughmen sang verses to her as they tilled the soil; musicians coming to Iraq celebrated her fame with music; Franks and Greeks hummed her praises as they sailed the seas in fair weather. The whole earth was filled with her praise, she was celebrated in every language wherever her name was known."
The Russian Orthodox Church added Tamara to its roster of saints in recognition of her good works, among which the Church enumerated concern for the poor, widows, and orphans and contributions to the Church.
Eastmond, Antony, "Gender and Orientalism in Georgia in the Age of Queen Tamar," in Liz James, editor, Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium, Routledge, 1997.
Olsen, Kirstin, Chronology of Women's History, Greenwood Press, 1994.
"Georgian History," Edisher.com, http://www.edisher.com/history.asp (February 2003).
"History of Georgia," http://members.tripod.com/ggdavid/georgia/history.htm (February 2003).
"Saint Tamara, Queen of Georgia," http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/saints/tamara_georgia.htm (February 2003).
"Tbilisi, the Golden Age (1100-1300)," http://www.georgian-art.com/articles/jwright/golden.html (February 2003).
"Women in Power, 1150-1200," http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/womeninpower/Womeninpower1150.htm (February 2003).