The ideal monarch is wise, diplomatic, forward-thinking, a patron to the arts and cultures, and strong in defense of the realm. Few live up to this standard. Tamar, ruler of Georgia at the height of its golden age, matched this standard, even by the judgment of her enemies.
Tamar was born around 1160 (dates of her birth vary), to King George III of Georgia’s ancient and venerable Bagrationi dynasty (who claimed descent from the line of David, the biblical King of Israel) and Burdukhan, daughter of the King of Alania. Little is recorded of her early life.
Dynastic succession is touchy under the best of circumstances. As a woman, Tamar faced strong opposition from the nobles of the court, who preferred her cousin, Prince Demna. A rebellion of nobles favoring Demna broke out in 1177 and was crushed, and in 1178 Tamar was proclaimed heir and co-ruler by her father. When George III died in 1184, Tamar assumed the throne of a far-from-unified Georgia.
A complicated series of political intrigues resulted in Tamar being pressured into accepting the nobles’ choice for her husband: The Rus prince Yuri. The two were wed in 1185. Yuri was a decent enough soldier, and led Georgian forces to victory in battle, but he was a coarse and unpleasant person, and his entanglement in court politics did little to endear him to Tamar. So she filed divorce from him on grounds of drunkenness and immorality, and received her divorce from the ecclesiastical authority. It’s hard to overstate how big a deal this was, that the dynastic monarch of a fervently Christian nation would be able to divorce her husband and receive the go-ahead to re-marry from the church and bishops.
Now began the period marking the greatest expansion of Georgia’s domain. The Georgians fought against the neighboring Muslim sultinates, aided by exceptional generals (including the new king consort, David Soslan) and conquered them. Nearby kingdoms became vassals and protectorates. Georgian nobles stopped scheming to overthrow or curtail Tamar’s power and rallied to her banners and took the field. Georgians even founded the Empire of Trebizond, injecting themselves into the powers of the Middle East.
Tamar's status as an eligible queen with a solidly-run kingdom made her the frequent target of marriage proposals, and one can easily imagine that after dealing with Yuri, most of these would have gone unwanted. One of the most famous stories of Tamar tells of how the Sultan of Rum declared war on Georgia, stating he would have Tamar "as a Muslim bride or a Christian concubine." The diplomat sent to deliver this message was summarily punched in the face by a Georgian courtier (one assumes with regal assent). The clear message had been sent to the Sultan of Rum.
Tamar, always pious, is said to have prayed at the cave city and monastery of Vardzia, then addressed her troops from the steps of the church. Inspired by her piety, the Georgians crushed the invaders and sent the Sultan of Rum from whence he came, perhaps to meditate on the basics of diplomacy.
Tamar was a strong patron of the arts and cultures. She bolstered trade and commerce, and minted coins bearing her monogram and titles. Laws were codified; churches and cathedrals were built. Georgian culture developed as a strong and lively syncretic blend of Byzantine Christianity and Persian-inspired ideas.
Tamar is said to have died in 1213, but her grave remains unknown. Some say she was secretly buried in a monastery, to prevent grave desecration. Others claim her remains were peregrinated to the Holy Land, for burial near the Holy Sepulchre.
She came to power in a divided kingdom, and left it larger, more powerful, and sure of its cultural identity. She is canonized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox faith, and a national symbol for Georgians even today. None of her descendants could match the deeds of the greatest Monarch of Georgia.