King of Kings: Tamara, Queen of Georgia
King of Kings: Tamara, Queen of Georgia
For years, scholars who studied Greek mythology and their recorded histories have theorized that the Amazons, or a warrior race very similar to them, inhabited large areas of eastern Europe that included the country of Georgia. Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that a sword-wielding, horse-riding princess would become one of their greatest rulers, and one of the greatest military commanders in history.
In 1178, King George III of Georgia declared that his nineteen year old daughter Tamara, whom he called “the bright light of his eyes,” would become his co-ruler and heir apparent. With the support of his generals, bishops, viziers and nobles, George seated Tamara at his right hand, had her crowned queen and gave her the title, “Mountain of God.”
Tamara and her father ruled Georgia together for six years until George passed away in 1184, making Tamara the sole regent. She may have been queen, but she was still young and unmarried, and was therefore placed under the guardianship of her paternal aunt Rusudani. The Georgian nobility quickly began to pressure Tamara to marry and have children to cement a line of succession to the throne, so her aunt set about selecting a worthy suitor for the queen. Rusudani ultimately chose the popular Russian prince George Bogolyubski, famed for his brave exploits against the Muslims in the south.
Too bad Rusudani didn’t spend a little more time interviewing the prince; it turned out that though he might have been a war hero, Bogolyubski was debauched, rude, cruel, didn’t hide the fact that he was sleeping with almost every woman except for Tamara, and would insult her in public for being childless. Two years after they married, Bogolyubski tried to take over the throne, and Tamara responded by immediately exiling him.
Tamara’s second marriage was much happier. This time she chose Ossetian prince David Sosland, renowned for his bravery and horsemanship, and together they had two children, Prince Giorgi and Princess Rusudani, both of whom would later ascend to the Georgian throne.
Knowing that some of the nobles in her court chafed at the idea of a woman in power, Tamara promptly began a program of military expansion to keep her detractors too busy to interfere or amass their own forces at home. As it turned out, building up her military was a wise decision; in 1191, furious at his expulsion, Tamara’s first husband George Bogolyubski began to woo some of the more troublesome nobles over to his side, convincing them to help him overthrow Tamara and take over her kingdom. Tamara’s army met Bogolyubski’s forces in battle and crushed them twice, soon capturing Bogolyubski. The humiliated Russian prince was brought back to Tamara to face punishment. While her father would have opted to have Bogolyubski tortured and mutilated for his uprising, Tamara merely exiled him again. This time, Bogolyubski wisely stayed away.
With Bogolyubski out of the way, Tamara turned her attention to the Seljuk Turks, beginning a policy of aggression against them and other invaders that continued for twenty years. The wars helped to unite the divide factions in Georgia, bringing them together as a country, securing their borders and making routes safer to travel and opening up trading with other countries such as Russian and Armenia. As military leader and spiritual figurehead, Tamara would always march barefoot at the head of her army, and always address her troops before they marched into battle. Before the Battle of Cambetch in 1196, she urged her soldiers on with the words, “God be with you!” to which her men responded with riotous cheers of, “To our king Tamara!”
Tamara’s military leadership proved successful, and soon she was in control of several Muslim protectorates, and the Russian people on her northern borders paid yearly tributes to keep her pacified. Not all were impressed by Tamara’s might though, and in 1210 the sultan of Arbadil led his army over the Arak Mountains and into Georgia, slaughtering and enslaving all those in his way—almost 12,000 people. Tamara was outraged and launched a furious assault on the invading army, capturing the sultan in a surprise attack. On Tamara’s orders, the sultan and every last man in his army was put to the sword—an estimated 1,000 men. She then sent her army deep into Northern Persian territory to exact vengeance. They returned laden with booty, and Tamara installed her son Giorgi has ruler of the newly captured lands. No one doubted Tamara’s might again.
In the era of Tamara’s reign, Georgian culture flourished, reaching a golden age of prosperity, creativity, architecture and trade. The renowned poet Shota Rustaveli wrote the epic poem The Knight in Panther’s Skin, a pinnacle of writing at the time, and dedicated it to Tamara. One line of the poem reads, “Woman though she is, God had created her to be a sovereign.” The Georgians loved their queen, calling her, “the King of Kings and Queen of Queens,” and they would proudly say, “One knows a lion by its claws and Tamara by her actions.” When Tamara passed away on January 18, 1213, a chronicler stated that, “ploughmen sang verses to her while they tilled … Franks and Greeks hummed her praises as they sailed the seas in fair weather.” Tamara would later be canonized by the Orthodox Christian church.
Sadly, Georgia’s prosperity came to an end soon after Tamara’s death. Twenty-five years later, Mongols overran her kingdom and drove her daughter Queen Rusudani into exile. Later, writers such as Mikhail Lermontov tried to defame her, calling her, “a sprite from hell,” and Shakespeare criticized her in his play Titus Andronius, calling her “that heinous tiger Tamora,” who was “beast-like and devoid of pity.”
Tamara works cited:
by Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles
Hell Hath No Fury,
by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross
by David E. Jones
Uppity Women of Medieval Times,
by Vicki Leon
by Antonia Fraser