Inspiring Women in History: Middle Ages – Queen Tamar of Georgia

by Carla Groh

by Amber Edwards
Queen Tamar, also known as Tamar the Great, reigned in Georgia from 1184 to 1213 and is often regarded as the greatest monarch in the country’s history. As a ruler, she was nothing but extraordinary; she divorced her violent first husband and re-married a man of her choosing, crushed revolts, led her armies in military campaigns, and was a devout reformer, abolishing torture and abject forms of capital punishment.
At the young age of 24, Queen Tamar ascended the throne, crowned ‘co-monarch’ by her father King George II in 1178. Perhaps because of her gender and young age, her ascension to the throne was met with resistance, with a faction of noblemen later led by her divorced husband trying to usurp her. None succeeded, and she emerged as a revered figure in the artistic and historical reception of her reign; Unlike other women rulers, she was not met with backlash for her ‘transgressions ‘, on the contrary, her defiance of convention was immortalized and idolized in poetry. Her legacy was praised in epic tales and she was later canonized as a saint. 
Who was this extraordinary woman who defied traditional norms and led Georgia to its most substantial expansion, ushering in a Golden Age and inspiring the most significant poetic work in Georgian history, influencing the culture of her society to this day?

History of her reign

Tamar was born in 1160 in the Bagrationi dynasty, a royal family that had ruled Georgia for centuries. She was the only child of King George III and Queen Burdukhan. When her father passed away in 1184, Tamar ascended to the throne at the age of just 24.
From the very beginning of her reign, Queen Tamar was faced with numerous challenges. Georgia was surrounded by powerful empires such as the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk Turks, both of which sought to expand their territories into Georgian lands. Despite these threats, Tamar proved to be a skilled diplomat and military strategist.
One of Queen Tamar’s most significant achievements was the reunification of Georgia. Prior to her reign, the country had been divided into several smaller states. Tamar managed to unite these territories under her rule, creating a powerful and centralized kingdom.
Queen Tamar was also a devout Christian ruler, and she worked tirelessly to strengthen the Church in Georgia. She promoted education and culture, and under her reign, Georgian culture flourished. Tamar was known for her strong sense of justice and dedication to her people’s welfare.
Tamar’s military campaigns were also highly successful. She led numerous expeditions against the Seljuk Turks and other enemies, expanding Georgia’s borders and ensuring its security. Tamar’s victories earned her the title of “King of Kings” by her contemporaries.
Tamar likely died around 1213, in the vicinity of Tbilisi. Her passing was met with widespread grief among her subjects. She left behind a legacy of greatness and a united and prosperous kingdom. Her reign is remembered as a golden age in Georgian history, a time of peace, prosperity, and cultural flourishing.

Reception in art and poetry

Queen Tamar was famously depicted on murals at the Kintsvisi monastery in Georgia, and the Dormition at Vardzia, a stronghold hewn into stone as protection against invading armies.
Her reign elicited an unparalleled scale of literary and cultural output about her life and qualities as a ruler, acrostic poems honoring her adorned the walls of homes, and items like rings and pilgrims’ staves featured inscriptions praising her. Musicians in Iraq and travelers from Western Europe and Byzantium celebrated her virtues in their songs and stories during sea voyages. Her praises resounded worldwide in various languages, reflecting her widespread fame.
Myths emerged suggesting that Tamar’s son was conceived when a sunbeam passed through a window. These stories depict her as a divine figure of fertility and healing, akin to the earlier pagan deity Pirimze, who was revered for her ability to influence weather conditions.
Renowned poets of the era, such as Shota Rustaveli, drew inspiration from her life and wrote the famous line in his medieval poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin: “Lion cubs are equal, be they male or female”. 
“The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” is a masterpiece of Georgian literature written by the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli in the 12th or 13th century. The narrative follows two knights, Avtandil and Tariel, on their quest for a mysterious princess known as Nestan-Darejan. This epic poem intricately weaves elements of romance, chivalry, and adventure, marking it as one of the most distinguished pieces in the canon of Georgian literary history. Celebrated for its sophisticated language, vivid imagery, and enduring themes of love, friendship, and honor, “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” continues to be revered for its artistic depth and cultural significance. 
In the poem, Queen Tamar is a prominent symbol of power and wisdom, portraying her as a righteous and just ruler who embodies the ideals of chivalry and bravery. Her influence is felt throughout the poem as she inspires the actions of the knight Avtandil and shapes the destiny of the characters. Queen Tamar plays a crucial role throughout the narrative, emphasizing the importance of strong leadership and noble values in the face of conflict and adversity.
During her lifetime, Tamar was venerated in almost divine terms. A Graeco-Georgian colophon and the late 12th-century Vani Gospels believed to have been composed at the Roman Monastery in Constantinople at Tamar’s request, declared her a saint.
Throughout her life, Tamar was deeply devoted to her faith, maintaining strong connections with the Georgian Orthodox Church. Following her death, the church took an extraordinary step by canonizing her as Saint King Tamar, with the Georgian word for King not denoting her gender but simply her epitomizing divine ideals of rulership.
According to ecclesiastic tradition, Georgia was a country that was converted to Christianity by the only female apostolic saint in the Christian world – Saint Nino, and the canonization of Tamar signified a culmination of a prevalent theme.
Her elevation as a heroic leader and an exemplary spiritual figure within Georgian culture highlights a compelling portrayal of femininity that harmoniously integrates formidable strength, religious devotion, personal freedom, and compassion. Every circulating narrative emphasizes her feminine virtues, alongside her strong leadership, exemplified by her heroically leading her armies into battle herself, only to be absent herself throughout the actual fighting to pray in a nearby monastery, fiercely protecting her subjects (exemplified by the construction of the famous stronghold at Vardzia) and facing her enemies while continuously extending diplomatic emissaries and offering mercy towards her enemies, evoking loyalty through her strong leadership and decisiveness in recognizing power vacuums and ordering swift campaigns to expand the realm.
This unique ruler’s inspiring narrative exemplifies the profound impact of a deeply rooted ideal of womanhood and its positive impact on the history of an entire nation. Her legacy continues to serve as a great counterpose to the prevalent inclination to confine women within rigidly defined archetypes such as the saintly figure, authoritarian ruler, object of ideal beauty, or romantic desire. 
This opens up a new way of interpreting female leadership and strength, where societal transgressions are not condemned but more easily integrated and understood as a necessary element of growth, and acts of decisiveness and strength are not vilified as ruthless or cold but characterized as excellent leadership. While other female leaders perished on church pyres, had their marital ordeal and romantic alliances dragged through the mud, and their legacies forever tarnished, Tamar’s legacy remained intact, her virtue and religious devotion unquestioned, and she was bestowed with the highest honors by both the church and her own culture.

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