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21.03.06 Eastmond, Tamta’s World

The Medieval Review

21.03.06 Eastmond, Tamta’s World


What was Tamta's World and who was Tamta Mqargrdzeli? Antony Eastmond seeks to answer these questions in this recent work, which explores the life and changing circumstances experienced by this medieval noblewoman living in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The scope of her life, while largely undocumented, is impressive: originally hailing from the Armenian-Georgian borderlands, she found herself balancing gender and identity, power and position in and around the courts of Georgia, the Ayyubids, the Khwarazm, and the Mongols. Beautifully illustrated and broad in its geographic scope, Eastmond's work is not exclusively about Tamta, per se, but instead provides an important cultural and historical perspective on the politics and movement between and among Middle Eastern and Central Asian kingdoms and empires in the 13th century. Starting with the Crusades and ending with the rise of the Mongols as a backdrop, Eastmond traces Tamta's navigation through the intricate politics of the Caucasus region and beyond, providing a vital window into the way local kingdoms interacted with other significant powers of that time.

In his sweeping introductory chapter, Eastmond claims that "We do not normally think...separate worlds could be experienced by one person, let alone by a woman, in the thirteenth century." Eastmond notes that past chroniclers considered the lives of such women to be "hardly the stuff of history" (2). Eastmond addresses this lacuna of written sources about Tamta by examining art, architecture, and other material aspects of the world that she inhabited. The hardback edition which was available for review is 434 pages, and includes 145 illustrations, many of which are replicated as color plates elsewhere in the book. This approach provides a rich tableau through which the reader can envision Tamta's life experiences, but, as with the written record, the lack of extant evidence directly related to Tamta sometimes leads the author to make what can at times appear to be conjectural associations based on proximate sources and materials.

Eastmond addresses this research problem through a thematic approach that offers a multifaceted analysis of Tamta's world. Chapter Two discusses the world of the Mqargrdzeli family and their rise to prominence as key supporters of the royal house of Georgia, personified by Queen Tamar, and their control of the border reaches with Armenia. Central to this discussion is the way in which Christian identity was manipulated by strong local families to consolidate power and rulership. In the following chapter, Eastmond then expands his treatment of the region to include the Ayyubids, with whom the Mqargrdzelis came into contact as they overtook numerous Seljuk strongholds in a bid to expand Georgian power southwards (76). Tamta entered history when she was ransomed to the Ayyubids at the city of Akhlat in exchange for her father. With her marriage to the Ayyubid ruler of Akhlat, Tamta began her entry into regional politics, serving in this instance as a link between the Ayyubids, the Mqargrdzelis, and the Georgian court, all of whom were aligned against the Seljuks. Even more significantly, she remained Christian, thereby serving as an intercessor between Akhlat's Ayyubid rulers and its potentially rebellious Christian population (84).

It is here that a common problem in ex-European history emerges, namely that the historical complexes, kingdoms, and individuals are frequently so diverse that they are difficult for the non-specialist reader to keep straight. While good effort has been put into providing maps for the reader in the front matter, some of the admittedly shifting political boundaries can be made more clear. In a similar light, adding the family trees of a number of key dynasties such as the Ayyubids, the Mqargdzelis, the Mongols, and the Georgian royal house would have been welcome.

Chapter Five begins a long discussion on women and power. Here Eastmond cites several examples of women who ruled independently, through regency, as wives and as mothers, and as proxies. He notes that such women often manipulated "mechanisms of power and influence" to "further their own causes" (109). Eastmond alludes to many other women who were deputized with rule in the region surrounding Akhlat, indicating that Tamta's example was not exceptional (108). Of course there is Eastmond's own example of Queen Tamar of Georgia, who led her troops to the battlefield, was portrayed in church paintings as a saint and icon, and was named King of Kings and Queen of Queens. Perhaps the real point is made in the chapter's concluding remarks, which is that diverse populations and enormous distances required power to be deputized to and wielded by those who could be trusted with it (123). The need for the reliable exercise of power often trumped other considerations, such as gender roles. If there is a potential missed opportunity in Eastmond's treatment here, it's that he is somewhat apologetic about this fact.

Chapter Six examines the city of Akhlat--only a cemetery remains of Tamta's city--architecturally to be sure, but also as a place of interaction between people of different cultures and faiths. Akhlat was more ecumenically Christian than other regional cities, such as the mostly Armenian Ani. In addition to a substantial Greek community, Akhlat also was home to communities from the Church of the East and Syrian Orthodox Church, and Eastmond notes that the canonist Abdisho 'Bar Brikha resided in the city for a time. It should be considered here that Eastmond refers to the communities of the Church of the East as "Nestorian Christians" (130, and elsewhere). Modern scholarship has largely rejected this term as both pejorative and historically inaccurate. [1]

Conceptions of feminine virtue and harem politics, in which women often patronized building projects to burnish religious credentials, are explored in Chapter Seven. There is then a return to the theme of cities and courts as places of interaction in Chapter Eight. Pointing to the sometimes tense relations between Christians and Muslims in the cities of the Caucasus, where violence could occur over "public professions of faith in public spaces" (220), Eastmond brings to the fore the role of interreligious marriages in helping to maintain peace. He hones in on the role Tamta played in helping sustain various policies related to taxation, as well as religious pilgrimage and maintaining the relationship with the Christian population of Akhlat. It is here that Eastmond's subtle analysis of the visual infiltration of interreligious art at the Ayyubid court takes flight. An example is his analysis of the "Freer" basin (221-23) of Najm al-Din Ayyub, where he expertly describes how Christian visual cues inoffensive to Muslim sensibilities are present in the gifts that were exchanged within the Ayyubid court. In so doing he complexifies the relationship between these two faiths, showing how individuals like Tamta played a role in the fluid and complicated relationship between Muslims and Christians in cities like Akhlat. He is likewise careful to point out that these examples do not point to a syncretic culture, but rather one of two faiths living side by side (233-41).

The following chapter discusses Tamta at court, an environment she moved within for much of her life. Noting that while "the world of the palace was principally designed to evoke the interests and pastimes of the male elite that inhabited its spaces," nonetheless the "common preoccupations of the ruler and his courtiers transcended cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries"(281). Visual cues could be external as well, and as explained in Chapter Ten the builders of Akhlat appear to have left a mark on the surviving architecture across Anatolia. This architecture, which was not necessarily Ayyubid, would have been at Akhlat and had features typical of other Mqargrdzeli cities (282).

The defeat of the Georgian-Armenian Army at Garni in 1225 by the Khwarzmshah Jalal al-Din abruptly shifted the balance of power in the region and altered Tamta's fate (Chapter Eleven). In 1230, she found herself forced into marriage with Jalal al-Din, a marriage which proved to be short-lived as the region fell to the Mongols within a few years. Tamta's brother, Avag, subsequently submitted to Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan and commander of the western Mongol forces. As outlined in Chapter Twelve, with Avag's submission, and with the fall of Akhlat to the Mongols in 1236, Tamta was sent as a hostage to Karakorum.

It is here that Eastmond's mastery as an art historian is again deployed to great effect. In analyzing the visual culture present among the Mongols, Eastmond turns his attention to contemporary accounts by travelers to the Mongols, such as William of Rubruck, who described the value placed upon artisans in the Mongol court. Eastmond, for example, importantly relates the famous Silver Tree of Karakorum back to the tradition of automated marvels in the Byzantine and the Abbasid courts of the tenth century (358), establishing a context for the tree within a prior courtly tradition, and taking to task a view that such works sprang exclusively from European craftsmanship. He thus places this famous marvel within the tradition of earlier innovations located natively in the East, described by Rashid Al Din and al-Jazari, thereby challenging "the Eurocentric views of some modern scholars" (360). He elsewhere describes the tent of Maria of the Mongols, which, laden with Christian imagery, could become a mobile projection of such imagery, creating a "guaranteed way of inserting Christianity into the visual world of the Mongols" (362). Eastmond's subtle understanding of the role works of art played in the interaction between cultures provides valuable insights into the Mongol appropriation of tradition and locates those traditions in other contexts.

Chapter Thirteen describes Tamta's final role as ruler of Akhlat under the Mongol regime. The Mongols "generally reappointed many of the local nobles'' and tasked them with collecting heavy taxes, maintaining order within their lands, and fighting for them when called upon (369-70). Through an examination of the numismatic record, Eastmond illustrates the balance local rulers such as Tamta faced in both maintaining order and extracting often oppressive tax revenues from the populations of which they were a part (375-77). Georgian warriors were praised for their bravery and war-like attitude and so were frequently deployed in conflicts, such as the campaign against the Assassins and the siege of Baghdad (372). More pointedly, these forces were called upon to suppress and plunder their own populations, so loyalty and usefulness to the regime outweighed other considerations. For Tamta, as a Christian woman, there were no gendered or religious barriers to her assuming rule under the Mongols--who had precedents for both--and she controlled the city of Akhlat until her death, presumably in 1254 (386).

Eastmond concludes much as he starts, noting that Tamta's life fell between the cultural history of Byzantium, Armenia and Georgia, the Islamic world, and that of Central Asia. He commends efforts currently underway in scholarship to reach beyond regions and fields. Similarly, his approach advocates for using available primary sources, material evidence, and diverse methods to develop "a compromise between approaches and materials." The result, he hopes, is the recovery, through lives like Tamta's, of "a much wider, more diverse, and more connected world than we normally imagine" (394). He has written a complex and nuanced work and is to be commended for not only this, but also for bringing to life an individual and a region that itself falls between the cracks of usual historical focus. As with its namesake, Tamta's World as a scholarly effort moves between cultures and illuminates the unseen.

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Note:

1. Sebastian P. Brock, "The 'Nestorian' Church: A Lamentable Misnomer." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 78:3, (1996), pp. 23-35.