CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio contemplates the royal splendor of Queen Tamara of Georgia (reigned 1184-1213)

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Queen Tamara
Tamara, Queen of Georgia (on the Black Sea), was by all accounts a highly successful ruler. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, (Clio is not yet well acquainted with Wikipedia), her “realm stretched from Azerbaijan to the borders of Cherkessia, from Erzurum to Gandzha (Kirovabad) forming a pan-Caucasian empire, with Shirvan and Trabzon as vassals and allies.” This golden age of Georgia ended with the ensuing Mongol invasions, but was celebrated in an epic poem, “The Knight in The Tiger’s Skin,” by Shosta Rustaveli.

Clio finds the queen’s story very intriguing, especially with respect to appearance and body adornment. She rediscovered it when reading the Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner (English ed., 1910). Von Suttner spearheaded the movement for peace and disarmament in the years preceding World War I and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. She and her husband had spent a number of years living in Georgia, and to support themselves they had embarked on translations of Rustaveli’s epic into German and French. Regrettably these translations were never published in their lifetime.

Here is Bertha’s account of Queen Tamara and her splendor, no doubt drawn from this epic poem:

“The Georgians look back on a history extending over twenty-three centuries; their first king, Phamawaz by name, was elected three hundred and two years before Christ, and the Christian religion was introduced four hundred years after Christ by Saint Nino [described as a ‘holy captive woman’ by the EB]. Like every ancient history, that of Georgia is a history of wars. The land was surrounded by hostile nations and tribes; in particular it was constantly assailed by the Ottomans and Persians. . . .

“The reign of Queen Tamara is regarded as the golden age of the land. The chronicles aver that under this queen prosperity prevailed, the fine arts flourished, splendid buildings were erected, -- the same as you find it in all the ancient documents of flattery under the name of history. . . . If the rulers were cruel, the strictness of their rule is praised; if they were not, then this negative virtue is extolled to the skies. So it is to be read in the chronicle concerning Tamara, ‘No one at her command was deprived of his limbs or of his eyesight’ and that is the more noteworthy as at her time and afterwards the principle laid down by one of her ancestors, the heroic Wakhtang Gorgaslan, was in full force: ‘Whoever in war escapes death and fails to bring back the head or the hand of an enemy shall die by our hand.’. . .

‘At the beginning of her reign Tamara’s kingdom was threatened by the Persian caliph Nasir-ed-Din, who marched against the borders with a ‘numberless’ host. Then Tamara summoned her troops; in ten days she collected battle-joyous legions from all quarters, had them march before her in review. . . Then she delivered to them the banner of her ancestor. Of course the troops went and won a brilliant victory over the foe. When they returned home the queen hastened to meet them, and the soldiers, enraptured to see her in their midst, compelled all the chieftans of the Persian army to bend their knees before the queen.” And Bertha remarks: “Probably the incident is related differently in the Persian chronicles.”

“A few years later Rokn-ed-Din, sultan of Asia Minor, collected eight hundred thousand (!) men and marched against Georgia. He sent the queen, by his ambassador, the following polite message: ‘I would have thee to know, O Tamara, sultana of the Georgians, that all women are of weak understanding. Now I come to teach thee, thee and thy people, no longer to draw the sword, which God has given into our hands alone.’ . . .
“Tamara read the message ‘without haste.’ She gave her commands for the troops to assemble, and she herself rode out at the head of her army against the enemy. Of course the victory was complete: the streets of Tiflis were decorated and the queen made her triumphal entry glittering like the sun.

Clio adds (alluding to the following part of the story, as told by Bertha von Suttner), that “glittering like the sun” meant that “Tamara had put on all her precious ornaments – her crown of precious stones, her gold brooches and strings of pearls. Anew she glitters like the sun.” But then, in the course of distributing gifts and alms to her people, an old beggar woman refused to receive the gift from anyone but Tamara, who decided the old lady must be Mary the Holy Mother of God. “And [Tamara] tears all the precious ornaments from her body and carries everything, the pearls and the diamonds, to the nunnery of Gaenathi, dedicated to the Madonna.”

Clio observes that, even in medieval Georgia, women rulers faced hostility on account of their sex, but splendor and courage, plus good works, glittering like the sun, and sacrifice, assured her reign for nearly thirty years; legend has it that she was laid to rest in this same nunnery. Women who aspire to political power today do not have to deck themselves out in gold, diamonds, and pearls in order to shine like the sun, but even in today’s democratic societies style and elegance are essential. The body and its adornments carry their own forms of power.

Sources: Encyclopedia Brittanica (1968 ed.), vol. 10, 229c; Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner, vol. 1 (1910), 255-257.