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“One knows a lion by its claws and Tamar by her actions.”
Although it may not seem so, this charming 12th century turn of phrase cuts to the heart of Georgia’s greatest monarch, Tamar. While most of Tamar’s biographies emphasize her warlike tendencies – she did conquer massive swaths of land and curbstomped her shitty ex-husband’s armies (twice!) – truth be told, she was remarkably nonviolent, especially given whatthe era warranted.
(just to be clear: we’re talking about Georgia the country, not Georgia the Walking Dead filming location)
As you might imagine, life in the 12th century was not a high water mark for human civility. Tamar’s father, George III, was, it’s fair to say, downright impolite. When Demna, the rightful heir to the throne, put in his claim to rule, George III responded by blinding, castrating, and imprisoning him. George III was equally un-neighborly to the Georgian nobles, keeping their political scheming in check through instituting a new national sport: getting your kneecaps broken.
(just to be clear: this is the Georgian George III, not the Georgian Era George III, who was English. Well, also technically Georgian. It, uh. Yeah. Let’s just move on before this turns into an Abbott and Costello sketch,)
When Tamar became king1, it was after co-ruling with George III for six years. She had the relevant experience and the official say-so of the departing king, so you’d think the Georgians would be okay with it. But they weren’t, because — you guessed it, vagina. Critics got to critiquin’, schemers got to schemin’, and rebels got to rebellin’. While the time-honored response from her father’s regime would have involved copious bloodletting, Tamar proved herself more gentle. She instead quietly strengthened her power base while outwardly negotiating compromises – most notably, her marriage to Rus Prince Yuri, jerkwad extraordinaire.
There is little more you can say about Yuri than that he was a douchebag. Pretty much his first move after the wedding was to start warring against neighboring Muslims for little to no apparent reason. Topping off the turd sandwich that was his personality, we have a healthy heaping of slave-shtupping, heavy drinking, and publicly insulting Tamar for not bearing him a child. All this and more2 was brought to light during his divorce proceedings with Tamar.
Yes, that’s right, Tamar divorced him. In the 12th century. In a fervently Christian nation. At a time when the church expressly forbid it. This was not a mere separation – Tamar convinced the bishops to officially dissolve their marital bonds and allow her to remarry. Which she promptly did, keeping the throne for herself (her new hubby was titled king consort), kicking Yuri out of the country, and promptly having two kids. It had taken two years for her to solidify her footing, but once she had, she wasn’t about to take Yuri’s crap any more.
Tamar divorced her husband. In the 12th century. In a fervently Christian nation.
Which isn’t to say Yuri was done giving her crap. He ganged up with some malcontent Georgian nobles and led two different insurrections against her. She and her new husband (who, it should be mentioned, was himself a champion asskicker – this being one of the reasons she chose him) soundly trounced both uprisings. In a marked departure from the policies of kings past, after his defeat, she didn’t castrate Yuri even a little.
After that began her infamous policy of expansionism – a policy, historian Antonia Fraser argues, that was largely enacted to give the Georgian nobles’ idle hands something to do. It was enormously successful: the nobles fell under her banner, Georgian borders expanded out enormously, and the country entered its golden age.
An amusing anecdote from this time: one of Tamar’s warring neighbors was the Sultan of Rum, Suleiman II. In his declaration of war on Georgia, he sent her a letter that began with the zinger “every woman is feeble of mind,” and ended with the demand that she become his Muslim wife or Christian concubine. She crushed him.
While the nobles busied themselves with warfare, Tamar devoted much of her attention to Georgian culture. Under her reign the country began to find its own national identity, a unique blend of east and west. Her life served as the inspiration for the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, which is to this day widely considered the greatest piece of Georgian literature ever made.
The sultan’s letter began “every woman is feeble of mind,” and ended with the demand that she either become his Muslim wife or Christian concubine. She crushed him.
Her legend only grew after her death3. She was canonized by the East Orthodox church as the Holy Righteous King Tamar, and got her own feast day (May 14). Some legends had her conceiving her son by a sunbeam, or controlling the weather. To this day, Tamar remains one of the most popular names in Georgia. Not bad!
- Tamar took the throne as “king” instead of “queen.” There wasn’t much of a linguistic distinction in the word that Georgians used at the time. This wasn’t uncommon: also happened with Hatshepsut, Wu Zetian, and Jadwiga of Poland, among others. Tamar was the first female sovereign of Georgia. ↩
- Notably, he was also accused of sodomy. Not making a judgment call on sodomy – but Georgia, being very religious at the time, was not okay with it. The court records are silent as to whether this had any relation to their childlessness. Who knows, maybe 12th century sex education was just incredibly poor? Okay, maybe not. ↩
- Although not always in laudatory fashion. In Mikhail Iermontov’s 1800s poem “The Demon,” he characterizes Tamar as a lusty tyrant, sleeping with dudes and then tossing them off a cliff the next day. Which is pretty much the opposite of what she did with Yuri, whom she let walk free repeatedly. Fraser also supposes that the villainous Tamora in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was based off of Tamar, although others think it more likely he took her name from Tomyris. ↩
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- This is the traditional outfit in which she’s always pictured. Her dominant right hand is indicating mercy, while her other hand, holding a sword, is ready to bring the pain.
- The backdrop is the cave town at Vardzia, which she used as a staging ground for her troops when attacking Suleiman II. According to legend, she walked with them barefoot, and then addressed them from the church balcony.
- On screen left is Shota Rustaveli, writing down her exploits in poem form. Obscured and pouting on screen right is her shitty husband Yuri.
- She has tons of troops all over the rest of the picture – I experimented with making a special digital brush that just paints 11th century Georgian troops, but it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, so they’re fairly obscured. Had I more time, I’d redraw them and several other things, but I just don’t. Ah well, next week!
If you want to play with it, you can download it right here. It’s a Manga Studio 5 brush. If you use it anything, let me know! :)
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
You know you’ve lived a pretty interesting life when it somehow seems fitting that you die from a flash flood in the desert.