Tamara (1160–1212)

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Tamara (1160–1212)

Queen of the ancient kingdom of Georgia, renowned for the military exploits which increased her mountainous holdings from the Black to the Caspian seas, whose reign encompassed a flourishing of literature and the arts that marked the country's golden age. Name variations: Thamar; Tamara the Great. Born Tamara in 1160 in Georgia (the extensive Slavic kingdom east of the Black Sea in the Caucasus); died in Georgia in 1212 (some sources cite 1207); daughter of a princess of Osseti and George III, also known as Giorgi III (a descendant of Georgia's ruling Bagrationi line), king of Georgia; married George Bogolyubskoi, also seen as George Bogolyubski (a Kievan prince and son of Prince Andrew of Suzdal), in 1185 or 1187 (divorced 1188 or 1189); married David Soslan also seen as David Sosland, an Ossetian prince, in 1189 or 1190; children: (second marriage) son Giorgi (b. 1194), later George IV, king of Georgia; daughter Rusudani (b. 1195), later queen of Georgia.

Began rule as co-regent with her father (1178); assumed full power with his death (1184); defeated and banished first husband for his attempt to usurp her power (1191); quelled insurgents again (1193); defeated Bogolyubskoi for the last time (1200); during her reign, Georgia flourished culturally and economically, but decline set in not long after her death.

In the mountainous region dotted with old stone fortresses and early Christian churches that spans the area between the Black and Caspian seas, the ancient principality of Georgia has lain from earliest times at a crossroads of human history. Greeks and Romans came there to trade, and when the Ottoman Empire forced many of Georgia's neighbors to convert to Islam, its people held fast to their ancient form of Christianity. Near the end of the 12th century, the reign of Queen Tamara marked the country's golden age, with its capital at Tiflis, then one of the largest cities in the world, having a population of almost 100,000. Under Communist domination for most of the 20th century, Georgians remained staunch capitalists, trading and selling in most of the markets of the Soviet Union, even then demonstrating some of the same fierce independence that Queen Tamara came to symbolize in her day.

When Tamara came to power, she was the only remaining descendant in the Bagrationi line. Most of the kingdom had been unified by Bagrat III, who reigned from 975 to 1014, except for the capital city of Tiflis which was still in the hands of Muslim emirs. More than half a century after Bagrat's rule, Tamara's great-grandfather, David the Builder, conquered more territory, including Tiflis, during a rule lasting from 1089 to 1125. David was aided by European Crusaders, who had arrived in the Levant to recapture Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks. While the Turks were defending themselves on that front, David won the brilliant victories that secured his lands.

The Georgian kingdom was structured along feudal lines that would change little until the 19th century. Nobles and members of the church held their domains in trust for the sovereign, in return for their allegiance to him in times of war. The country was divided into provinces ruled by dukes, or erist'avs, and the

central administration was carried out by five vazirs, or ministers, including the chancellor (a position usually held by an archbishop), the war minister, the lord chamberlain, the chancellor of the exchequer, and the atabag, or lord high constable.

Tamara was the only legitimate child of a princess of the Caucasian kingdom of Osseti and King George III of Georgia. The fact that she was female meant that her father had to choose whether to name her as his successor or name a male who was not born into the ruling line of Georgia. King George chose to name Tamara, and implemented a sort of political campaign to ensure her acceptance by the Georgian nobility, church and military on his death.

During her reign … Georgia reached the height of its power, stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and uniting under its throne countless different races in addition to the Georgians themselves.

—Michael Pereira

In 1178, after it became evident that there would be no more royal children, the king held a ceremony in which his daughter, only 18 years old, was declared "King of Kartli" and crowned co-ruler with him. This was a calculated move on George's part to convince his nobles that he wished Tamara to succeed him and that he believed she would be a competent ruler. During the coronation ritual, Tamara was named "Mountain of God" and received homage from the highest members of the church hierarchy as well as important nobles and military leaders. For the six remaining years of King George's life, Tamara acted as queen-regnant, sharing the responsibilities of rule.

On her father's death in 1184, Tamara assumed the throne as sole ruler of Georgia, and was crowned once more, to reaffirm her right to the succession. At the time of her succession, and throughout her long reign, Georgia was a large, prosperous kingdom stretching north to the Caucasus mountains and south to Armenia. Located between the Christian European west and the Islamic Middle East, it was a region constantly sought after by competing kingdoms and empires; added to its vulnerability in terms of geography was its constant state of internal warfare and civil strife, created by the warrior mentality and feudal government.

Tamara faced resistance to her rule from nobles in the country who wanted to limit royal power by setting up a legislative body with authority equal to that of the sovereign. The move was due in part to the resentment her father had aroused with arbitrary shows of favoritism, and paralleled what was going on in England at roughly the same time, when nobles enforced limits on the royal power of King John through their creation of the document known as the Magna Carta.

In Georgia, Queen Tamara was a much stronger and more practical ruler than King John. Through negotiation with the major feudal lords, she retained executive and legislative authority, although she was forced to consult with a council on affairs of state. Her struggle was due to the habits of fierce independence among her people, however, and not because she was a woman. Georgian women had always been accorded a high place in community life, and the people traditionally took pride in differentiating themselves from Muslims by their equal treatment of women as well as their acceptance of Christianity.

Only 24 years old, Tamara was kept under the guardianship of her aunt Rusudani, a particularly powerful influence during her reign. Rusudani was strong-minded and wily, and Tamara often turned to her for advice. History documents Tamara's many qualities of leadership: she was a good administrator, a steady soldier, and a careful diplomat, wise as well as pious, gentle, and humane. As queen, she was often described as forceful but maternal, and she was obeyed by her subjects out of love and respect—although to do otherwise would generally have been foolish.

Since Tamara was not a young woman by the standards of the time, it was important to secure an heir to the throne, so the nobles and Rusudani chose the queen's first husband. George Bogolyubski, son of Andrew of Suzdal, grand prince of Kiev, was an arrogant, selfish man. Following their marriage in 1187, Tamara was hard put to bear with her husband's constant drunken debauchery. She had been raised in the Orthodox Church of her parents, and created a court characterized by piety and austerity, two qualities Bogolyubski did not share. Although Tamara enjoyed popularity and the loyalty of most of her subjects, there were, not surprisingly, a number of Georgia's aristocrats who did not believe they should be ruled by a woman. Part of Tamara's motivation for marrying George was his military prowess, which he fostered by making continuous war on the Muslim peoples to the south. Tamara hoped his reputation would help shore up support for her reign among the military and nobility who might be inclined to rebel against a sole female ruler. However, George eventually became more of a liability than an asset, especially as a couple of years passed and Tamara remained childless. Apart from her personal dislike of George, the fact that the couple had no children after so long a time meant that Tamara had no real reason to keep him as her king-consort. Instead of choosing to have him punished for his misdemeanors, in 1187–88 she petitioned an assembly of bishops and nobles for a divorce, and exiled her ex-husband to Byzantium (Greece). The characteristically clement queen sent him off with many luxurious parting gifts.

Tamara married a second time soon after banishing George. This time the choice was her own, the noble David Sosland, an Ossetian prince from the same province as her mother. (Ossetia was a territory of the Georgian kingdom.) Tamara and David were a much more suitable couple, and in due time Tamara had two children: a son Giorgi or George, born in 1194, and a daughter Rusudani , born a year later. Not long after her second wedding in 1191, the queen faced the first serious opposition to her reign, led by none other than her exiled first husband. George Bogolyubski had traveled to Turkey, where he apparently convinced the sultan of Erzerum that together they could conquer Georgia. Only the eastern provinces rose to the queen's defense, and during the summer of 1191 her position was seriously threatened. Armies led by three insurgent nobles converged on Tiflis, and Bogolyubskoi was proclaimed king. He held the position only briefly, however, before Tamara's armies rose up defeated the three insurgents. The rebellion failed, despite considerable support from some of the nobility of western Georgia, after the queen herself led her army in two battles against the invading forces of her ex-husband. Despite his attempted coup, Tamara again treated Bogolyubski with leniency, and rather than having him put to death, released him into exile to Byzantium once more. Instead of being grateful for escaping with his life for a second time, the persistent Kievan prince tried to take the kingdom by force once again in 1200, and once again Tamara's troops defeated him and forced him from Georgia.

Tamara faced other internal threats to her throne after 1191, mostly from disaffected nobles eager to seek their own aggrandizement during the reign of a female monarch. However, she managed to put down every conspiracy and rebellion against her, although the constant threat led her to pursue aggressive military policies as a means of maintaining control. Like many queens, she showed herself to be adept at military strategy, and often rode into battle herself, a calculated move to motivate her troops to equal valor on the battlefield. Her policies were astonishingly successful in expanding her already extensive kingdom and gathering many important protectorates under Georgian rule.

Rusudani (b. 1195)

Queen of Georgia. Name variations: Russudan or Rusudan. Born in 1195 in Georgia (Russia); daughter of Queen Tamara (1160–1212) and David Soslan or Sosland; sister of Giorgi (b. 1194), later George IV, king of Georgia; children: son David Narin.

The daughter of Queen Tamara , Rusudani inherited the throne of Georgia in 1223, after the years of her brother George IV's reign had seen the kingdom start to fall from the pinnacle it reached under their mother. This was in large part due to George's inattention to policy and military matters, but the rising power of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes also wreaked havoc in the country. Rusudani, described as "unmarried but not a virgin queen," apparently was not much interested in statecraft, but she responded readily to military threats and opportunities. From 1225, she battled off and on for years with a prince of the Khwarizmians whose armies had claimed part of southern Georgia and occupied and sacked the capital city of Tiflis. Rusudani ruled from the city of Kutais until the Khwarizmian prince beat a hasty retreat from the approach of a Mongol army. The Mongols then turned to fight Persia, and the queen reoccupied Tiflis. She was forced to flee again in 1236 as the Mongols returned. This time they claimed the country for good, but it was not until 1243 that Rusudani formally agreed to Georgia's becoming a vassal state. By this time she was co-ruling with her young son David Narin, and the agreement with the Mongols, which allowed the Georgian government its autonomy in exchange for the payment of massive taxes, was meant to ensure that her son would inherit the whole of the country. The deal was not honored after Rusudani's death, however, and he inherited only a piece of it.

During Tamara's reign, the great flowering of Georgian culture resulted in a golden age. The country's prosperity was unprecedented and its citizens felt a sense of unity and security they had never known before. Over half of its land was mountainous, and rich in minerals such as copper, iron, gold, and agate. Its precious metals had been fashioned for centuries into beautiful jewelry, and during Tamara's reign its artisans produced works of art in the form of necklaces, bracelets, and swords. Copper coins were minted using the monogram of the queen, and she became known, as sovereigns often do, for the construction carried out during her reign, including roads, bridges, a caravansary, fortresses, churches, and monasteries. More than a thousand years later, some of this architecture still attests to her power.

Music, painting, and literature also flourished under her rule. Some writings from the second half of the 12th century remain an important part of Georgia's heritage even today. Shota Rustaveli's saga The Man in the Panther's Skin, written during Tamara's reign, is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature. Dedicated to Tamara and her husband David, the work is written with classical clarity and characterized by lofty aspirations, heroic spirit, open-mindedness, and nobility of thought. Its heroine is the virtuous and gentle Nestan-Darejan, who rebels against a forced marriage and is forced to undergo imprisonment. Three knights swear to free her. Many have wondered if Tamara's own life did not inspire this literary work, which elevated Georgian poetry to new heights.

Within the complex and sophisticated social hierarchy and vast bureaucracy of the country, there were many court officials who served the queen in addition to her five vazirs. Some titles from that period gradually evolved into common Georgian surnames. Some known today which originated in large households include Amilakhvari (Master of the Royal Stables); Amirejibi (Master of the Chamber); and Meghvinetukhutsesi (Chief Wine Steward).

Throughout her reign, Tamara enjoyed the consistent loyalty and love of her subjects, who referred to her as their King Tamara, there apparently being no word for "queen" in the Georgian language. She died at the height of her power and popularity at age 53, and was deeply mourned by the Georgian people. Including her years as co-ruler, Tamara reigned for 34 years, greatly expanding her kingdom and increasing its prosperity; her memory is still preserved in Georgian culture, as she represents the pinnacle of the Georgian golden age.

Her son George IV, age 18, succeeded to the throne, and soon revealed an inaptitude for government as great as his mother's aptitude had been. Unconcerned with the lives of his subjects, he squandered his time with companions and refused to marry, leaving only an illegitimate child when he died young in 1223, a few years into his reign. The throne then went to Tamara's daughter Rusudani, who shared her brother's disinterest in the responsibilities of kingship. In 1236, she was forced to flee Georgia during the invasion of the armies of the great Mongolian leader Genghis Khan; leaderless and defenseless, the once-powerful kingdom of Georgia became only an addition to Genghis Khan's lists of conquered countries. Although its government remained autonomous, the country was forced to pay a heavy tribute, and taxation ruined the rural population while the towns declined. Beginning in 1403, there was a brief respite, but the growth of the Ottoman Empire put the Caucusus region under permanent Turkish influence. In 1801, Georgia was annexed by Russia, and it remained part of the Russian empire until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century.

But in the land once ruled by Tamara, Georgians have never forgotten their golden age. Churches, fortresses, and palaces are still there to remind them of the kingdom which stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, and The Man in the Panther's Skin recalls their era of greatness, while the queen of that era has come to symbolize all that was best in this mountainous nation and its people.


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Daniel, Glyn. The Georgians. NY: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

Fraser, Antonia. "Lion of the Caucasus," in The Warrior Queens. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Lang, David Marshall. The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy 1658–1832. NY: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Pereira, Michael. Across the Caucusus. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1973.

Uitz, Erika. The Legend of Good Women: The Liberation of Women in Medieval Cities. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1988.

Wieczynski, Joseph L. The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 12. Academic International Press, 1979.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia