The reign of Queen Tamar was a unique event, not only in the history of Medieval Georgia, but also in the history of Medieval Christendom as a whole. This female king (in medieval sources, Tamar is mentioned as both ‘King’ and ‘Queen’) ruled her kingdom not simply as a regent of some underage prince or as a representative of her male relative (father or husband), but as a true and lawful ruler in her own right. Indeed, at the end of the twelfth-century, Georgian culture had already reached the point where the political and intellectual elites were prepared to accept a woman as their legitimate ruler.
Tamar was the eldest daughter of King George III (1156-1184). King George was grandson of the eminent King David the Restorer. He inherited his grandfather's strength and vitality. King George dealt harshly with those who opposed the crown. One of his main goals was the centralization of royal power. He was feared and respected among his subjects. On the other hand, King George also prioritized the external political and military success of the Georgian Kingdom. During the glorious reign of King David the Restorer, the Georgian Kingdom established itself as the sole supreme power in the Caucasus region. Georgia had a restless rivalry with the Muslim political formations of the Caucasus and the Middle East. King David’s son Demetre I (1125-1156) and grandson George III fought with Georgia’s Muslim neighbors over control of the major cities of the Caucasus. Notwithstanding several failures, the Georgian policy was ultimately successful. King George achieved his goals, and the Georgian Kingdom continued to grow as a great military and political power. However, toward the end of his reign, George faced probably the greatest challenge of his rulership. The great house of the Orbelis, which had risen during the rule of King David the Restorer, was now, after nearly sixty years of loyal service to the royal house, organizing a rebellion against the crown. Ivane Orbeli, the main conspirator against the crown, convinced King George’s nephew, the young and inexperienced Prince Demetre or Demna, to join the rebellion. Ivane promised the prince that after the rebels had overthrown George, they would crown Demna and he would be the sole ruler of the kingdom. However, Ivane Orbeli’s actual plan was quite different from what he told the young and gullible prince: he intended to take control of the country himself, while the young prince would just be a puppet in his hands. Ivane and his supporters began the rebellion in 1177 (some historians claim that the rebellion occurred in 1179). Nevertheless, King George was not a weak ruler who would panic at the threat of such mortal danger. He immediately gathered his troops, and unexpectedly attacked the fortress of Lori (in present-day Armenia) where the rebels were garrisoned. These quick and aggressive measures taken by the king frightened the rebels. The rebellion started to decline, as many of the rebels abandoned Orbeli and Demna. Finally, George captured the remaining rebels, and he pardoned almost everyone. However, Ivane Orbeli, his son Sumbat and his brother Kavtar were blinded and put to death. The King also ordered a horrendous punishment for his nephew – the young Demna was blinded and castrated, and soon afterward he died in a dungeon.
After Demna’s severe punishment and painful death, there were no other male heirs to the royal throne, so in 1178 (or 1179) King George crowned his daughter Tamar as his co-ruler. After the King's death in 1184, Tamar was crowned again in Gelati. The second coronation was demanded by the great noble houses. They did not like the fact that the Queen claimed her power as coming solely from God and her father; they also wished to legitimize Tamar’s rule. From the very beginning of her reign, Tamar revealed herself to be a smart politician and an able diplomat. She did not want further complications, so she agreed to the demands of the great noble houses.
During the twelfth century, the Georgian elite became extremely powerful. Members of the great feudal houses acquired all of the major offices at the royal court. They were desperate to control every aspect of life in the Georgian Kingdom. The main obstacle to this was, of course, the power of the royal authority. As such, their main intention was to undermine this power. They thought that Tamar would be a weak ruler and easy to control. However, they were gravely mistaken.
Queen Tamar (Photo by Giorgi Maghradze)
First of all, the Georgian lords expressed bitter dissatisfaction at the policy of the late king. Toward the end of his reign, King George awarded some major offices to low-born people, which was unusual in feudal society. Several important offices were held by people who had some years before been members of lesser nobility, or even worse - they had been servants. This caused outrage among the great lords, whose noble houses went back several centuries. Naturally, King George had chosen these people because of their loyalty to the crown. Tamar succumbed to the whims and wishes of the lords, and disposed of those officials who were low-born. However, the insatiable ambitions of the nobility did not stop there. After their demand had been fulfilled, the great lords presented another request. But now their wish was far more serious and dangerous.
What was their demand? As a Georgian historian of the royal court wrote, it was something unheard of before. A powerful man named Kutlu Arslan announced that the great lords of the Georgian Kingdom intended to organize a separate council called Karavi (‘tent’ in Georgian). Karavi was going to represent a separate political institution. In Karavi, the great lords would discuss and make crucial decisions about the internal and external policies of the country. Following this discussion, they would present their decisions to the queen. Tamar's only obligation would be to confirm these decisions with a royal decree. For a century and a half, scholars have debated whether Karavi was a primitive and early form of parliament. Some historians argue that Karavi was indeed the foundation of a legislative institution that resembled a European-style parliament. Other historians claim that the Georgian lords who opposed the centralized power of the crown copied this institution from the Seljuk court, and it was not a form of parliament in any sense. Whatever Karavi was, it would weaken the power and authority of the crown. It was too much, and Tamar began to take action. She was not alone, since she had numerous supporters. Tamar did not intend to start any bloodshed, however. This was one of the most startling features of her rulership: she refused to punish her opponents, forbade all form of physical punishment and banned the death penalty. Instead of declaring war, Tamar sent female ambassadors to Kutlu Arslan’s party. We do not know how the negotiations went or what terms both sides agreed upon, but we do know that Kutlu Arslan and his supporters gave up their original plan. Queen Tamar had won, and thus the authority of the crown survived.
Nonetheless, internal conflict between the crown and feudal opposition did not end. Tamar had serious problems with the Church. King David the Restorer had reorganized the Georgian Church and resisted its opposition with great difficulty. Since King David’s time, the Church had regained great power. Its influence grew enormously after the Orbeli rebellion. The Georgian Church supported the crown during this uprising, and after the rebellion was crushed King George was obliged to award a whole range of privileges to the Church. This sparked great ambition among the influential ecclesiastical lords, one of whom was the head of the Georgian Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Michael Mirianisdze (1178-1184). The latter did not like Tamar at all, and he was not going to submit to royal authority. Patriarch Michael attained the office of Chancellor, occupied the See of Chqondidi (a major bishopric in western Georgia), and was opposed to Tamar's politics. Tamar summoned an ecclesiastical council, and with the help of her supporters, she tried to dethrone Michael. Her attempt, however, was unsuccessful, and Michael maintained his powerful position, remaining on the patriarchal throne until his death.
Another issue that demonstrated the internal struggle between the queen and the great lords was the issue of Tamar’s marriage. Tamar never wished to get married, preferring to remain in chastity as a Christian nun. However, the royal throne needed an heir, so the great lords began a vigorous search for her future husband. As this search revealed, they did not care much about the political and military skills of Tamar's future husband, but more about how they would control the future king. After a long search, they found a suitable candidate – the Russian Prince Yuri or Giorgi (‘Giorgi the Russian’ in Georgian sources), son of the Grand duke of Vladimir-Suzdal, Andrey I Bogolubsky. They invited him to Georgia, and the couple were married in 1185. Giorgi was not a suitable candidate for kingship, however. He turned out to be a mean drunk, a weak ruler, and some Georgian historians even accused him of being homosexual. To begin with Tamar was patient with him, but after more than two years of marriage, she banished her husband. Giorgi was not going to yield his position so easily, though. He conspired against Tamar, and in 1191 with the support of the great lords of western and southern Georgia, rebelled against his former wife. The rebellion was supported by the famous lord and warrior Guzan of Tao, who had remained loyal to Queen Tamar for years. The royal forces faced down the rebels and annihilated them in a crushing defeat. George was banished again, and Guzan of Tao fled to the mountains. Some local peasants captured him, however, and brought him before Prince David Soslan (Tamar’s second husband). Since David knew that because of her merciful nature Tamar would not punish the traitor accordingly, David blinded him for his treachery before the Queen had been informed of Guzan’s capture. In 1193 Giorgi tried to overthrow the queen a second time, but once more failed disastrously. Despite his treachery, Tamar never intended to blind, castrate or murder him (as was typical in Byzantium or other Christian states of Medieval Christendom), but after this final defeat, Giorgi’s subsequent fate is unknown. Tamar's second marriage turned out to be a successful one. She married the Ossetian Prince David Soslan, who had grown up at the royal court. In all probability, David was a descendant of the branch of Bagrationis who had settled in Ossetia. Prince David proved himself to be an able commander-in-chief and a faithful supporter of the Queen. Tamar and David had a son, Lasha-Giorgi (the future King George IV), and a daughter Rusudan (the future Queen of Georgia, who ruled the kingdom during the devastating incursions of Jalal al-Din Khwarazm-Shah and the Mongols). Even though Georgia now had a proper male ruler, Tamar still retained her superiority. She was the sole rightful King of Kings and Queen of the kingdom.
Twelfth-Century Rock-Cut Monastery of Vardzia (Photo by Guram Kharshiladze)
The reign of Queen Tamar is marked by Georgia’s greatest military success. Georgia faced its Muslim neighbors in a battle for control of the Caucasus region. The Sultanate of Rum and the Turkish Eldiguzid dynasty were two powerful Muslim political formations that were extremely unhappy with Georgia’s huge military and political success. The Eldiguzids controlled most of northern Iran and the easternmost parts of the Caucasus. Shirvan (a territory of modern Azerbaijan) was a tributary state of Georgia. However, the Eldigizids always claimed Shirvan as belonging to their sphere of influence. Conflict between the Bagrationis and the Eldiguzids was inevitable. Georgia faced the Eldiguzid Atabeg (ruler) Nusrat al-Din Abu-Bakr at the Battle of Shamkor in 1195. In this battle, the Georgian army destroyed the forces of the Eldiguzids, thus securing domination over the eastern Caucasus region. Another dangerous rival for Georgia was the Sultanate of Rum – a powerful Turkish political formation in Asia Minor. The ruler of the Sultanate, Suleyman II (also known as Rukn ad-Din), led his forces against the Georgian Kingdom. However, his cause was lost. In 1203, Georgian troops defeated the huge army of Rukn ad-Din. These victories cemented Georgia's position as the most powerful kingdom in the Caucasus. Led by David Soslan and the great noble house of the Mkhargrdzelis, the Georgian royal army won one great battle after another. Between 1199 and 1204, the Georgians liberated northern and central Armenia from Muslim invaders (Armenia was the main domain of the house of the Mkhargrdzelis). In 1204, Georgian forces captured the city of Kars, thus guaranteeing Georgian control of important trade routes. Another great military success for Georgia was the military expedition to Iran in around 1210, when the Georgian army sacked and ravaged several major Iranian cities. In 1204, the Empire of Trebizond was founded, which was a great political and military achievement for the Georgian Kingdom. Now Georgia had a loyal ally in Asia Minor.
Georgia’s success was so apparent that even the great Saladin was concerned at the growing military power of Georgia. For this reason, in 1185 he sent ambassadors to the Georgian royal court and requested peace. Tamar agreed not to attack the territories that were under the control of Saladin. The major subject of negotiations between Queen Tamar and Sultan Saladin was the great city of Ahlat, which was under Saladin’s control at that time. As it appears, the Georgians did not break the peace treaty and relations between the Kingdom of Georgia and the Sultanate of Egypt remained peaceful.
Tamar's reign was also marked by great cultural achievements in Georgia. One of the splendid monuments of medieval Georgian culture is the epic Georgian medieval poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shota Rustaveli. In his poem, Rustaveli expressed the principles of Georgian knighthood and feudal society. He praised equality, bravery, humanity and freedom. Even though Rustaveli was the greatest medieval poet of Georgia, very little is known about him. He was probably a member of some great noble house. He received a good education (most likely in both Georgia and Byzantium), and toward the end of his life he became a monk at the Georgian Monastery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Other great poets of the Golden Age of Georgia were Ioane Shavteli and Chakhrukhadze. In their verses, these poets praised the rule of Queen Tamar and David Soslan. They demonstrated a great deal of knowledge of classical history and philosophy, Persian poetry, geography, medicine, and philosophy.
Catholicos-Patriarch Nicholas Gulaberisdze was one of the most brilliant minds of the Golden Age of Georgia. He was an ardent supporter of the Georgian crown. He led the Georgian Church from 1149 to 1178, after which, because of his humble character, he declined the patriarchal throne and went on a pilgrimage throughout the Christian east. He gave financial support to the Georgian monastic communities in Jerusalem and Mount Athos. Catholicos-Patriarch Nicholas wrote a famous treatise about the main Georgian Church of Svetitskhoveli, or the Temple of the Life-Giving Pillar (the church that is associated with the Christian conversion of Georgia). In his treatise, Catholicos-Patriarch discussed the introduction of Christianity to Georgia, the role of the female apostle to Georgia, the character of Georgians compared with other nations, etc. He also recounted miraculous old stories and legends about the Temple of the Life-Giving Pillar. His treatise became one of the most popular theological works in the Georgian Church.
During the Golden Age, the Georgian Church reached the climax of its power. The influence of Georgian Christianity spread not only to different communities in Georgia and Armenia, but also to the northern Caucasus. Georgian missionaries crossed the icy Caucasus Mountains and preached Christianity to the northern Caucasian communities. This is confirmed by the discoveries of Christian churches in Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Dozens of Georgian inscriptions were discovered in the northern Caucasian lands. These inscriptions were in the local northern Caucasian languages, but made using the Georgian alphabet.
Fresco in Vardzia Monastery King George III and Queen Tamar (Photo by Giorgi Maghradze)
Tamar became a legend during her lifetime. Her humanity and support for the common people made her the most beloved monarch in the history of Georgia. Almost every local community in Georgia claimed that Tamar was buried there. When asked about ancient fortresses, castles, churches and stone bridges, local people always insisted that all these old structures were built by the glorious Queen Tamar. In folklore, Tamar became a mythical creature, symbolizing eternal light and virtue. People looked up to Tamar as a kind of goddess who would always come to assist her people when they needed it.
Queen Tamar died in 1210 at the age of 50. Her death caused bitter mourning not only among all Georgians, but also among other nationalities. There are many speculations about her final resting place, but in all probability, she was buried at Gelati monastery (as was typically accepted for a member of the Bagrationi family) alongside her forefathers.