The Institute on Religion and Democracy originally published this article here on May 2, 2014.
This Sunday, the third Sunday in the joyous Paschal season, marks the commemoration of the eight Myrrh-bearing women in the Orthodox Church. These were the courageous women disciples who came to Jesus’ tomb following the Crucifixion to anoint His body with frankincense and myrrh. Foremost among them were His Mother, the ever-Virgin Mary, and St. Mary Magdalene. Fittingly, these disciples came to anoint the dead King of Life with the same precious spices and holy oils which the three Magi anointed Him with immediately following His birth. During the somber services of Holy Week leading up to Christ’s passion, voluntary death and harrowing of hell, the Church recalls the myrrh-bearers’ unique dedication in the third Stasis of the Hymns of Lamentation before the Tomb of Christ (called the epitaphios in Greek), a symbolic model of which is erected in every Orthodox temple.
This reverent love toward the body of the Lord stands out especially because these women risked all to travel to His tomb, while Christ’s male disciples remained inside their homes, too afraid of the Pharisees and Temple authorities to venture out. For their touching devotion to the Lord and their inestimable bravery, the Church lauds these righteous women as “Equal to the Apostles”. In fitting company with the courageous myrrh-bearing women on this Sunday, the Church also commemorates among Her Saints one of history’s greatest monarchs and statesman, who was also a woman of profound wisdom, justice, and holiness: Queen Tamar the Great of Georgia (1160-1213).
If anyone insists to you that Christianity represses women, or that Christian women are always under the control of oppressive male patriarchs, Queen Tamar’s life and reign is one of the most profound historical examples you can bring up to refute this claim. The most powerful ruler in Georgian history, Tamar presided over the medieval kingdom’s Golden Age, during which it experienced an unparalleled cultural and religious renaissance under the wise Queen’s careful rule.
During her reign, Georgia’s military and political influence expanded rapidly to cover the entire Transcaucasia region, and Tamar’s armies regained numerous cities and fortresses from both Turkish and Persian control. By the end of the Queen’s reign, Georgia had reached the zenith of its power, and its territory stretched from the Black to the Caspian Seas, and from the steppes of Alania (modern North Ossetia) to northern Persia. Most of what is today eastern Turkey, Armenia, all of Georgia, Azerbaijan, northern Iran, and the disputed regions of Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Abkhazia were all subject to Tamar. The Queen also founded the client state of Trebizond on the southern shore of the Black Sea, which served as a vital connection to the restored Byzantine Empire following the end of the Crusader-led Latin Empire.
Tamar’s royal house, the Bagrationi family, ruled Georgia for the entirety of its independent history. Among Tamar’s illustrious ancestors were her renowned paternal great-grandfather, King David IV the Builder (also known as David the Restorer) who reigned from 1089-1125 and consolidated the kingdom’s borders while expanding the power of the monarchy over the powerful, contentious noble clans. Tamar’s venerable grandfather St. King Demetre (Demetrius) I, who reigned from 1125-56, famously composed this magnificent Theotokion (hymn to the Virgin Mary), “Thou Art a Vineyard”, while imprisoned at a remote monastery in 1154 when his son Prince David rebelled against him. When Tamar was born, the sole heir to her father King Giorgi III (r. 1156-84), Georgia had not yet had a female ruler, and so, in order to ensure that the contentious nobles accepted her as his heir, her father proclaimed that he would share the throne with his daughter. The young Tamar co-ruled alongside her father for six years from 1178 to 1184, when, following his death, she succeeded him as monarch in her own right.
Queen Tamar was not merely the consort of a King, although she awarded her capable second husband, the Ossetian Prince David Soslan, with this title in order for him to carry out certain male aspects of kingship which she as a woman could not have undertaken at the time, such as fighting in battle. Rather, in her close partnership with her husband, Tamar ruled and reigned as the principal monarch, similar to the role of Isabel I, ‘la Reina Catolica’ of Castile or Isabel’s granddaughter, Mary I of England, both of whose husbands reigned alongside them as Kings consort. Underlying her authority as monarch, Tamar appears in most Georgian chronicles with the title of Mep’e (the Georgian word for the Sovereign), since the Georgian term for ‘queen’, dedop’ali, denotes a monarch’s female consort.
A revered Saint of the Church renowned for her ascetic devotions, numerous charitable works, and deep piety, Queen Tamar is one of the most important and beloved women in Georgia’s 1,700 years of Christian history. She endowed numerous cathedrals and monasteries both in Georgia and the Holy Land, and provided protection for Christian pilgrims traveling between the holy sites. Her extraordinarily successful 29-year reign (1184-1213) stands out as an example of not only what an empowered Christian woman can accomplish as a dedicated mother, wife, and daughter of God, but of a virtuous Christian leader who serves God and her people as a diligent statesman, defender of her realm, wise dispenser of justice, and servant to the poor.
Praised in renowned poet Shota Rustaveli’s epic allegorical poem “The Lion in the Panther’s Skin”, Queen Tamar presided over the flowering renaissance of Georgian culture at a time when her kingdom achieved unprecedented influence in the Transcaucasia region. At a period when the Orthodox world was reeling from the 1204 Sack of Constantinople by the renegade knights of the Fourth Crusade, Tamar’s Georgia filled the power vacuum as a key regional power straddling East and West. Similar to the role Byzantium played for centuries as the gatekeeper to Europe, Georgia under the Queen’s leadership defeated repeated invasions by far larger Muslim armies. Tamar’s victories thus not only ensured the survival of Christianity in the Middle East, but enabled Georgian monarchs after her to serve as the protectors of Christian pilgrims en route to the Holy Land.
In his popular book The Lives of Georgian Saints, Georgian Archpriest Fr. Zakaria Machitadze recounts the extraordinary wisdom which Tamar displayed throughout her reign, especially in Church affairs and in the difficult question of deciding, first, how to end her disastrous first marriage, and then, following her divorce from her abusive first husband, the crucial question of whom she should take for her second husband in order to ensure her dynasty’s continuation:
At the beginning of her reign, Tamar convened a Church council and addressed the clergy with wisdom and humility: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil,” she advised. “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. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation.… You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”
The Church and the royal court chose a suitor for Tamar: Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal (in Georgia Yuri was known as “Giorgi the Russian”). The handsome Giorgi Rusi was a valiant soldier, and under his command the Georgians returned victorious from many battles. His marriage to Tamar, however, exposed many of the coarser sides of his character. He was often drunk and inclined toward immoral deeds. In the end, Tamar’s court sent him away from Georgia to Constantinople, armed with a generous recompense.
Many Middle Eastern rulers were drawn to Queen Tamar’s beauty and desired to marry her, but she rejected them all. Finally at the insistence of her court, she agreed to wed a second time to ensure the preservation of the dynasty. This time, however, she asked her aunt and nurse Rusudan (the sister of King Giorgi III) to find her a suitor. The man she chose, Davit-Soslan Bagrationi, was the son of the Ossetian ruler and a descendant of King Giorgi I (1014–1027).
Tamar stands out in history as one of the most courageous and inspiring female rulers, who was able to summon the strength to rally her troops to defend the kingdom at the moment of its greatest peril. Four centuries before England’s Queen Elizabeth I delivered her famous Tilbury speech while her warships battled the Spanish Armada, Queen Tamar appeared twice before her army on the eve of battle as they prepared to save Georgia from two massive invasions by Muslim armies. Fr. Zakaria writes:
In 1195 a joint Muslim military campaign against Georgia was planned under the leadership of Atabeg [commander] Abu Bakr of Persian Azerbaijan. At Queen Tamar’s command, a call to arms was issued. The faithful were instructed by Metropolitan Anton of Chqondidi to celebrate All-night Vigils and Liturgies and to generously distribute alms so that the poor could rest from their labors in order to pray.
In ten days the army was prepared, and Queen Tamar addressed the Georgian soldiers for the last time before the battle began. “My brothers! Do not allow your hearts to tremble before the multitude of enemies, for God is with us.… Trust God alone, turn your hearts to Him in righteousness, and place your every hope in the Cross of Christ and in the Most Holy Theotokos!” she exhorted them.
Having taken off her shoes, Queen Tamar climbed the hill to the Metekhi Church of the Theotokos (in Tbilisi) and knelt before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. She prayed without ceasing until the good news arrived: the battle near Shamkori had ended in the unquestionable victory of the Orthodox Georgian army.
After this initial victory the Georgian army launched into a series of triumphs over the Turks, and neighboring countries began to regard Georgia as the protector of the entire Transcaucasus. By the beginning of the 13th century, Georgia was commanding a political authority recognized by both the Christian West and the Muslim East.
Georgia’s military successes alarmed the Islamic world. Sultan Rukn al-Din was certain that a united Muslim force could definitively decide the issue of power in the region, and he marched on Georgia around the year 1203, commanding an enormous army.
Having encamped near Basiani, Rukn al-Din sent a messenger to Queen Tamar with an audacious demand: to surrender without a fight. In reward for her obedience, the sultan promised to marry her on the condition that she embrace Islam; if Tamar were to cleave to Christianity, he would number her among the other unfortunate concubines in his harem. When the messenger relayed the sultan’s demand, a certain nobleman, Zakaria Mkhargrdzelidze, was so outraged that he slapped him on the face, knocking him unconscious.
Vardzia Monastery, where Queen Tamar and the Royal Family spent time fasting and praying during the Lenten fast.
At Queen Tamar’s command, the court generously bestowed gifts upon the ambassador and sent him away with a Georgian envoy and a letter of reply. “Your proposal takes into consideration your wealth and the vastness of your armies, but fails to account for divine judgment,” Tamar wrote, “while I place my trust not in any army or worldly thing but in the right hand of the Almighty God and the infinite aid of the Cross, which you curse. The will of God — and not your own — shall be fulfilled, and the judgment of God — and not your judgment — shall reign!”
The Georgian soldiers were summoned without delay. Queen Tamar prayed for victory before the Vardzia Icon of the Theotokos, then, barefoot, led her army to the gates of the city.
Hoping in the Lord and the fervent prayers of Queen Tamar, the Georgian army marched toward Basiani. The enemy was routed. The victory at Basiani was an enormous event not only for Georgia, but for the entire Christian world.
All accounts of Queen Tamar’s reign attest to her mercy, her genuine love for the poorest of her people, and her deep ascetic devotion to prayer and fasting. Fr. Zakaria relates that
Once she was preparing to attend a festal Liturgy in Gelati, and she fastened precious rubies to the belt around her waist. Soon after she was told that a beggar outside the monastery tower was asking for alms, and she ordered her entourage to wait. Having finished dressing, she went out to the tower but found no one there.Terribly distressed, she reproached herself for having denied the poor and thus denying Christ Himself. Immediately she removed her belt, the cause of her temptation, and presented it as an offering to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.
During Queen Tamar’s reign a veritable monastic city was carved in the rocks of Vardzia, and the God-fearing Georgian ruler would labor there during the Great Fast. The churches of Pitareti, Kvabtakhevi, Betania, and many others were also built at that time. Holy Queen Tamar generously endowed the churches and monasteries not only on Georgian territory but also outside her borders: in Palestine, Cyprus, Mt.Sinai, the Black Mountains, Greece, Mt. Athos, Petritsoni (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Thrace, Romania, Isauria and Constantinople.
The divinely guided Queen Tamar abolished the death penalty and all forms of bodily torture.
A regular, secret observance of a strict ascetic regime — fasting, a stone bed, and litanies chanted in bare feet — finally took its toll on Queen Tamar’s health. For a long time she refrained from speaking to anyone about her condition, but when the pain became unbearable she finally sought help. The best physicians of the time were unable to diagnose her illness, and all of Georgia was seized with fear of disaster. Everyone from the small to the great prayed fervently for Georgia’s ruler and defender.
God sent Tamar a sign when He was ready to receive her into His Kingdom. Then the pious ruler bade farewell to her court and turned in prayer to an icon of Christ and the Life-giving Cross: “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to Thee I surrender my soul, O Lord!”
The burial-place of Queen Tamar has remained a mystery to this day. Some sources claim that her tomb is in Gelati, in a branch of burial vaults belonging to the Bagrationi dynasty, while others argue that her holy relics are preserved in a vault at the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem.