One of the greatest and most beloved Monarchs in Georgian history died on January 18, 1213. Her reign saw the Golden Age of Georgia when the Kingdom prospered and became the foremost power in the Caucasus, successfully repelling many foreign attacks. Tamar’s titles during her lifetime were “By the will of God, King of the Abkhazians, Kartvelians, Arranians, Kakhetians and Armenians, King of Kings and Queen of Queens of all the East and West, Glory of the World and Faith, Champion of the Messiah”.
Tamar was born in 1160 to George III and his wife, Queen Burdukhan (daughter of the King Khuddan of Alania). The couple had only two daughters, Tamar and Rusudan (who married Manuel Komnenos and whose sons founded the Empire of Trebizond). Tamar’s name is of Hebrew origin; the House of Bagrationi claimed direct descent from the biblical King David and Hebrew names were often used.
George III was a strong King and it was during his reign that the Golden Age would start; instead of his father’s policy of defence, he employed a more aggressive one and successfully fought against the Seljuk rulers, especially in regards to the lands of Armenia (then under the control of the Seljuks). At the same time, King George had to fight against rebellious groups within the country; many prominent nobles believed that the King’s nephew, Demna (the son of the murdered King David V) was the rightful heir. George III successfully quashed the rebellion and Prince Demna died in prison. However, because the King had no sons himself, there was always a threat a new uprising would be started in the name of one of the male relatives.
To counter that, George III proclaimed his young daughter his co-regent in 1178. The newly crowned Queen co-reigned with her father for six years until his death in 1184, upon which she became the sole Monarch and had a second coronation. Her reign was far from undisputed, however, since many Georgian nobles opposed her succession because of two facts – her youth and gender: before Tamar, Georgia had never had a female Monarch.
There is no telling how events would have developed had it not been the support of the Church and especially her aunt, Rusudan: Rusudan was the sister of David V and George III, and widow of not one but two Seljuk Sultans (Masud Temirek and Hiyas ad-Din Sanjar); as such she wielded considerable influence in the country. Her support for her young niece, as well as the fact she agreed to be a regent during the earlier years of Tamar’s reign certainly helped legitimise the Queen’s reign.
Once the question of the legitimacy of the Queen’s reign was solved, a no less important issue arose: finding an appropriate husband. Tamar herself didn’t want to rush into marriage but she was more or less forced to marry the Rus Prince Yuri. She didn’t have much say in the matter for the Prince’s candidacy was approved by the Church, the nobles and, most crucially, by Princess Rusudan. Although Yuri proved himself to be an able commander, he was a very difficult husband and the couple grew apart within months of marriage. At the same time, Tamar began to ascertain her royal powers more by appointing her supporters to key political roles. That enabled her to persuade the Church and the noble council to grant her divorce from Yuri; although the latter tried to re-gain the throne several times (including an invasion attempt aided by Constantinople and several Georgian nobles), he failed and little is known about him post 1191.
Now that she was free again, Tamar resolved to marry the man she herself would pick; her choice was an Alan Prince, David Soslan – supposedly, a descendant of George I of Georgia. David was Tamar’s childhood friend, as well as the student and protégé of her aunt, Rusudan. This union was a highly successful one; not only did Tamar and David remain a loving, harmonious couple until David’s death, but the new King Consort was also her keenest supporter and an able commander who successfully repelled many invasion attempts. They had two children together – George (who would succeed his mother as George IV) and Rusudan (named after both Tamar’s aunt and sister; she would succeed her brother to become Georgia’s second Queen Regnant).
Queen Tamar was triumphant in both external an internal affairs. During her reign, Georgia fought against the Seljuks, culminating in the Battle of Basian in 1204. Alarmed by Georgia’s succession in the region, Suleymanshah II attempted an invasion of the country but was thwarted by Georgian forces led by David Soslan. It is said that before the battle, the Queen personally addressed her troops from the balcony, inspiring them to fight till the end. And that they did, defeating the Sultan’s forces; victory at Basian allowed Georgia to secure its positions on the south-west and keep the Seljuqid threat at bay. During Tamar’s reign, a pan-Caucasian Empire was effectively created; her realm stretched from the Greater Caucasus crest in the north to Erzrum in the South, and from the Zygij in the north west to Ganja in the south-east In addition, the Zacharians – an Armenian noble family whose representatives occupied many notable positions in Tamar’s court and who were extremely loyal to her – controlled northern and central Armenia.
Along with expanding her Kingdom, Tamar also took care of the internal affairs. While the Council of Nobles still existed, the Queen’s powers were virtually undisputed and she employed them to great effect. Her policy of strong feudalism helped to keep the Kingdom from fragmenting, while the many laws she passed benefited Georgia’s standing on the international arena. Georgia became a flourishing commercial centre, bringing new wealth to the country. The widespread prosperity is well-expressed in a saying from the time – “the peasants were like nobles, the nobles like princes, and the princes like kings”.
The prosperity gave unprecedented raise to Georgian culture. Many monuments and churches were built in her time, Georgian language was modernised, and one of the greatest achievements of native literature – Shota Rustaveli’s epic poem “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” was written during her reign. It was said that Shota Rustaveli was in love with the Queen and dedicated his greatest work to her; certainly, the poem contains many references to Tamar and glorifies her beauty.
Although the Queen was canonized by the Georgian Church much later (she is now the Holy Righteous Queen Tamar), she was named a saint even in her own lifetime in the manuscript of the Vani Gospels. Her virtues both as a woman (beauty, humility, love of mercy, fidelity, and purity) and a Monarch (wise and successful rule, care for her people) helped cement Queen Tamar as an iconic and revered figure not just in Georgia but in neighbouring countries too. There is a legend (not unlike the rather more familiar Arthurian one) that Tamar didn’t die but sleeps on a golden bed and when the sufferings of her people will be unbearable, she will revive and reign again.