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Queen Tamara |
The lioness of Christian Georgia

Queen Tamara is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 240, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

‘The lion’s whelp is a lion,’ wrote the poet, ‘be it male or female,’ as Queen Tamara vanquished both the Turks and an ex-husband

Queen Tamara - The lioness of Christian Georgia

Queen Tamara - The lioness of Christian Georgia
A Georgian icon of Queen Tamara. During her twenty-nine-year reign Georgia experienced what would be called its Golden Age, with advances made in science and agriculture, and military victories over the predatory Muslim Seljuks.

To George the Rus, officially Prince Yuri of Novgorod, a man not notably inhibited by the knightly virtues–in fact, widely known as an overbearing, brutal, and malicious drunk–here, surely, was an opportunity to seize and rule a great nation. A callow girl, in fact the ex-wife who had divorced him, had continued to reign as queen of ancient Georgia, one of the oldest kingdoms in Christendom. But that any female could rule the rough, tough Georgians? What nonsense! Step one was obviously to get rid of her; it was time to gather an army.

So he did, and in 1190 he marched against the forces loyal to Queen Tamara, heiress of the dynasty that had ruled Georgia for nearly five hundred years. Stirred by their resolute young queen, the royal army quickly quashed the insurrection. The surly George was paraded before the throne he had so recently shared with her and waited the inevitable execution order. But having shown her undoubted courage, the queen now showed her mercy. She banished George otherwise unpunished to Byzantium, a leniency he rewarded by rebelling once more seven years later. Defeated again, he vanishes from history altogether.

By then, however, the queen’s capability surprised no one. Running in her blood was the courage of the remarkable Bagrationi dynasty, which would rule Georgia for another seven hundred years, until the Russian conquest in the nineteenth century. She resembled her great-grandfather, King David II, said to have cleansed his lands of Seljuk Turks and reclaimed cities fallen to the Muslims, who was canonized for restoring Georgia as a unified Christian nation.1

The resemblance proved true, for it was during Tamara’s twenty-nine-year reign that Georgia enjoyed what historians call its “Golden Age,” wherein, it was said, “the peasants were like nobles, the nobles like princes, and the princes like kings.” In her reign the Seljuks were pushed out of Armenia farther west into Anatolia and Muslim armies suffered major defeats, in 1195 and 1203.

Tamara’s era, says Antony Eastmond (Royal Imagery in Medieval Georgia), saw Georgia reach its “cultural apogee,” with advances in science and agriculture. But it did not begin easily. The queen, crowned while still in her teens–a mere child, they said, and a girl at that–barely survived her first years in power. It had been two hundred years since the widow of King Gurgen II had tried ruling Georgia, and she had been forced to abdicate by her own Bagrationi relatives. “You, as a woman, cannot control a city,” they asserted. But Tamara’s father, Giorgi III, thought otherwise, had carefully trained her, and saw that she was crowned as his successor before he died.

Ironically, it may have been the marriage to George the Rus that won her the respect of her people. Whatever his reputation for malevolent debauchery, George was an Orthodox Christian and could provide the country with an heir. He had orchestrated several Russian victories over Muslim armies, and military achievement mattered greatly in Georgia. But Tamara well knew the marriage had been forced upon her, the contrivance of ambitious nobles preparing to seize the throne. So she swiftly consolidated her power, divorced George, then awaited the predictable coup and destroyed it.

Choosing her own second husband, she bore a son and a daughter, both of whom would later reign. She preserved peace at home by rigorously enforcing the law–“nobody dared to rob a caravan,” it was said, while Tamara was queen–and, if need be, she wreaked bloody vengeance on foreign belligerents. The sultan of Ardebil (in modern Azerbaijan) had taken a Georgian city in 1209, slaughtering any civilians his troops could find, thousands of whom were at church for the Lenten services. In response, Tamara waited for the sacred Muslim season of Ramadan. Then her army invaded Ardebil, slaying one Muslim for every Christian who had died. The sultan himself was killed, his wife and children sold into slavery with the rest of the survivors, and Ardebil razed.

Soon, writes Eastmond, “layers of myth, folklore, and romance” gathered about Tamara. To some, she was the “model warrior-queen,” to others a “siren-like temptress” who fatally lured men with her beauty. But the most flattering tribute of all was penned by the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, called by some “the greatest poetic genius of the Middle Ages,” who not only dedicated his masterwork, The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, to Tamara but claimed her as its inspiration.2 “The lion’s whelp is a lion,” he wrote, “be it male or female.”

Tamara, ultimately canonized by the Orthodox Church, was fortunate to have died in 1212, eleven years before the terrifying arrival of the Mongols and the abrupt end to Georgian hegemony.

1. King David II’s efforts culminated in 1121, when Georgia routed the Muslims near Didgori, conclusively quelling Islamic influence in the region. Known as “the Wonderful Victory,” its anniversary is still celebrated as a Georgian holiday.

2. Little is known about Shota Rustaveli, although he may have been a minister at Tamara’s court before retiring to a monastery. Georgia has named its highest award for art and literature after him as well as the main street in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin is considered its national poem, a work that, as historian Pavle Ingorokva puts it, “trained the Georgian people in the spirit of heroism.”

This is the end of the Queen Tamara category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 240, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Queen Tamara from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at