With Tamta’s World: The Life and Encounters of a Medieval Noblewoman from the Middle East to Mongolia, Antony Eastmond has produced an engaging and insightful analysis of the political and cultural expectations placed on a thirteenth-century noblewoman whose family played a central role in the Kingdom of Georgia. This volume is approachable and enjoyable, weaving Caucasian history into a broader landscape of Ayyubid expansion and divisive politics, Rum Seljuq political ascendance, Khwarazmian upheavals, and Mongol devastation. Relying on an impressive cross-section of, among others, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Syriac texts, Eastmond presents the architecture and material culture of both Muslim and Christian communities in medieval Anatolia and the Caucasus in a readable fashion. At the heart of Eastmond’s work is a remarkable protagonist. Tamta was the daughter of Ivane Mqargrdzeli, a prominent figure in the Kingdom of Georgia, who, along with his brother Zakare, ruled over much of Armenia for the Georgian queen Tamar (d. 1213). In Armenian texts, the family name Mqargrdzeli is entirely absent, and historians of Armenia instead refer to them as Zakarids. When Ayyubid forces defeated Ivane at Akhlat in 1210, he agreed to marry his daughter to al-Malik al-Awhad Ayyub b. al-ʿAdil as part of the subsequent conciliation. The groom died the same year, though, and Tamta was subsequently married to his brother, al-Ashraf Musa b. al-ʿAdil. The Ayyubids appear to have had little interest in Tamta, as she does not enter the narratives of Syrian and Jaziran politics until the Khwarazmshah Jalal al-Din captured Akhlat in 1230. The Khwarazmshah raped and then forcibly married Tamta. Like her first marriage, this union did not last long, as Jalal al-Din was murdered in 1231 and Tamta returned to al-Ashraf. In 1236, Tamta was captured by the Mongols and may have passed much of the next nine years in Karakorum, until the Georgian Queen Rusudan (d. 1245) requested her return. Tamta then ruled Akhlat in her own name for nearly a decade before her death (d. ca. 1254). Eastmond uses Tamta as a window into thirteenth-century Anatolia and Armenia, applying both written texts and an impressive array of both Christian and Islamic metalwork, manuscripts, architecture, and ceramics to investigate difficult questions about identity, power, and connectivity. Tamta and her city Akhlat sat directly at the juncture of Syria and Mesopotamia, on the one hand, and Anatolia, on the other, where Iranian cultural trends crossed ethnoreligious borders. The Khwarazmian and Mongol armies that wreaked havoc in Tamta’s life overran a vibrant and interconnected society. Given the book’s focus on a cultural and military crossroads, Tamta’s World is particularly successful at extracting Armenian cities from nationally oriented readings of the past, focusing instead on the numerous influences on an Armenian woman and city. This encourages the reader to rethink the very usefulness of Armenianness as a self-contained category in the medieval period. Ivane’s conversion to Georgian Christianity, for example, highlights not only the blurriness of lines provided by medieval ethnonyms, but also the political advantages that such appellations could provide a shrewd politician. This volume addresses the particularities of Tamta’s world and does not narrate the biography of Tamta herself. Both Tamta and Akhlat are “elusive” protagonists (172). As Eastmond points out, there remain “no more than half a dozen references to her,” and some of these are “allusive and indirect” (16), requiring, for example, that we recognize the epithet “sultan of Akhlat” to refer to Tamta (343). Similarly, most of the buildings of medieval Akhlat are long since lost, leaving us with thirteenth-century tombstones, plus promising comparisons with other Anatolian cities, such as Ani, and the evidence gathered from the edifices produced by Akhlati builders outside of Akhlat itself. Given the constraints of the sources, Eastmond uses the examples of Tamta and Akhlat to explore broader ideas of political contestation and inter (and intra)religious encounters in the Georgian, Ayyubid, and Seljuq worlds. Tamta and Akhlat are the touchstones of the book, and Tamta’s life dictates the structure of the book, but neither is the topic of the book, which is far broader in scope, ambition, and argument. Tamta, like medieval women more generally (94), is both central and, simultaneously, frustratingly, marginal to the story of medieval politics. Eastmond adroitly clarifies that “identities were slippery things” (20), though he also argues that once Tamta married an Ayyubid “her identity had to change to accommodate her new position” (172). As a Christian wife of an Ayyubid amir, “Tamta had succeeded by being able to shift her identity,” yet when the Mongols placed her back in Akhlat, “one particular identity was being thrust upon her” (376). Our few snippets of text only allow us to guess at “the multiple identities that accompanied her through her life” (386), whether shifting or stable. We should also be hesitant to equate her identity with her position as either wife or ruler. Her very usefulness as a diplomatic bride and as a hostage rested specifically in her perceived Armenianness or Georgianness, not her ability to change her identity. She was a symbol of the relations between the Christian Caucasus and, first, the Muslim Ayyubids and, second, the Mongols. Wholesale reinvention of herself after marriage would have impeded her ability to mediate between these groups. Nevertheless, Eastmond’s conclusion that Tamta must have been capable of adapting to a dizzying array of cultures and circumstances seems incontrovertible. The broader discussions in Tamta’s World, in particular those concerning women in both Christian and Islamic political theory, women’s strategies for working within the confines of their own political and religious settings, and women’s simultaneous marginality and centrality to political contestation, will undoubtedly encourage fascinating discussions among scholars and students alike. I expect to assign the book to a graduate-level course on the history of women in the medieval Middle East, and I suspect that it will also interest scholars working on Muslim-Christian relations, medieval Caucasian history, the Mongol Empire, and Anatolian art and architecture. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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