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Tamar the Great: Georgia's Queen of Kings

I am not a fan of video games, but I am passionate about everything to do with Georgia, the fascinating Caucasian nation. It has begun to emerge as one of the more exciting modern travel destinations. So it came as no surprise when Georgia’s most revered mediaeval monarch Queen Tamar the Great debuted as one of the new world leaders in Civilization VI: Rise and Fall. In this blockbuster video game players vie to rule historical kingdoms, staving off the numerous challenges that may lead to their downfall.  Tamar is a superlative choice for world domination.

Queen Tamar (1160-1235 CE) ruled during the zenith of Georgia’s Golden Age, when her borders stretched from the shores of the Black Sea to the Caspian, across the mighty Caucasus to the north and into the expanse of modern-day Armenia and Iran to the south.  She was revered in her own time and down the ages to ours as a thoughtful patron of culture, arts, and sciences, a faithful supporter of the Christian Church, and a fierce warrior queen. Several queens ruled Georgia, but only Tamar earned the title “mepe” or “king.” Contemporaries referred to her as “Queen of Kings, Glory of the World, Kingdom, and Faith.”

Tamar was born in 1160 into the royal family of Georgia. Her position as successor to her father, King George III was a unique one: a female had never ruled Georgia, but her father persevered in making her his heir, proclaiming, “it matters not if a lion is male or female.” He crowned the 12-year-old Tamar queen while he was still alive, and declared that they would rule together. In doing so, George III hoped not only to tutor Tamar in the art of monarchy, but also to make her succession more secure. However, Tamar faced her first political challenge almost immediately after her father’s death in 1184.

Georgia’s powerful nobles saw Tamar’s sole rule as an opportunity to wrench back some of the autonomy they had lost under her ancestor, King David IV, known as “The Builder.” A century before, David had successfully driven out the Seljuk Turks from Georgia, winning independence for his kingdom from the powerful empires surrounding it. He unified the numerous minor Georgian principalities, powerful nobles, and the Church into one strong kingdom, creating an efficient military and central state bureaucracy to defend and administer it.

It was the descendants of these powerful nobles who stood between Tamar and her destiny. Accounts differ as to what happened next: pragmatic historians suggest that Tamar suppressed the nobles rather brutally, while the more eccentric supporters recount that Tamar’s wisdom, piety, and dignity were enough to quell her adversaries to submission. However she managed it, we know that Tamar brought these warring nobles to heel, and soon turned them into the foundation of her successful monarchy.

Early in her reign Tamar convened a Church council, making it abundantly clear that the institution could expect loyalty and cooperation from her, declaring: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil. Begin with me – if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service.” This respect earned Tamar the crucial support of the powerful priestly lords, who were stalwart in their loyalty to her throughout her reign.

All of the contemporary chronicles agree that Tamar was as beautiful as she was wise. Superlatives abound in descriptions of her physical attributes and even the two-dimensional, other-worldly depictions of her in ancient icons and frescoes on the walls of Georgia’s magnificent cathedrals depict an attractive young woman with abundant dark hair, a swan-like neck, emotional and intelligent eyes, clad in elegant robes. Her beauty and her position made her a catch throughout the Mediterranean.  Guided by the church, Tamar first married Prince Yuri of Russia, a military commander of great prowess. This was a diplomatic alliance that strengthened ties between Georgia and her neighbor to the north, Kievan Rus. Yuri’s behavior, however, set a course for strife between the two successor nations that still rages today. Often drunk, and perennially unfaithful, Yuri proved a disappointment as a husband. Thanks to her loyal allies in the Church, Tamar was able to divorce Yuri and marry a descendant of the noble Bagrationi family, David Soslan, with whom she had at least two children.

Under Queen Tamar, Georgian culture flourished. Tamar took a great interest in building.  She underwrote the construction of many of Georgia’s stunning cathedrals, churches, and the fascinating monastery of the caves at Vardzia. Science and learning found an eager patroness in the queen, as did poets and writers. Under her reign Georgia’s most celebrated poet, Shota Rustavelli, penned his epic poem “The Knight in the Panther Skin,” which he dedicated to Tamar. The queen led Georgia’s military to significant victories in the battles of Shamkori in 1195 and Basiani in 1202. These victories enabled her to found the Empire of Trebizond, in present-day Turkey. The work her ancestor David the Builder began was ultimately realized by Tamar, who ruled over the Kingdom of Georgia at its largest and most powerful. The reigns of these two great monarchs are considered the bookends of Georgia’s Golden Age.

The burial place of Queen Tamar is an unsolved mystery, which has given rise to many legends akin to those of Arthur of Camelot. Some say her remains were brought for safekeeping to Jerusalem. Others say that Tamar is not dead, but sleeps in a cave deep in the Caucasus. One day, she will awake and emerge from the cave, and a new Golden Age will dawn for Georgia. Her memory is cherished to this day: she is a beloved saint of the Orthodox Church, numerous churches and cathedrals bear her name, as do countless girls and women in the Caucuses. And now, of course, there is the video game. 

Learn more about Queen Tamar and the fascinating history of Georgia with Alexander + Roberts on our original itinerary Georgia and the Caucasus, which includes a special visit to Tamar’s cave monastery at Vardzia, A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our Georgia Tours will allow you to experience Georgian hospitality, high mountains, and scenic vistas.

Posted: 7/2/2018 10:24:05 AM by Alexander + Roberts