Meet the Kurdish female medieval leader

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Himdad Mustafa

Kurdish affairs commentator and Kurdologist.

Tamta the life and encounters of a Kurdish Christian female leader from Kurdistan to Mongolia. In the 11th century some members of the Kurdish tribe of Babirkan in Northern Kurdistan converted to Christianity and moved to Georgia.

Two of their most famous princes were Zakare and Ivane whose loyalty to Queen Tamar of Georgia enabled her to exercise independent power as ruling Queen in the male dominant world of the medieval period. In 1201, Ivane and Zakare successfully captured Armenia and parts of Kurdistan from the Seljuks and founded the Zakarid dynasty.

Tamta and the Ayyubids As the Zakarids were taking control of eastern Anatolia, another Kurdish dynasty, Ayyubids, was rising to power in a different region of the Middle East, and as Antony Eastmond the author of Tamta' World noted 'two families from the same ethnic background and from the same region rising to power in different states, using different languages and professing different religions, engaged in a bloody war in order to control Anatolia.'

In 1210, Ivane was captured outside the city of Akhlat. The consequences of Ivane’s capture would resonate for the next forty years, particularly for one person, his daughter Tamta. Tamta’s presence as a bargaining chip in the ransom negotiations for her father is the first that we meet her in the historical source. However, this was only the first in a series of defeats, marriages and rape that saw her passed between all the conquerors who eyed Anatolia in the first half of the thirteenth century.

Tamta was surrendered in marriage to al-Awhad, a nephew of Saladin. However, al-Awhad died before marriage, she was subsequently married to al-Ashraf of the Ayyubid dynasty for over 25 years, until his death in 1237, and she became the ruler of Akhlat. Tamta and the Khwarazamians Tamta was exercising power in Akhlat on behalf of her Ayyubid husband in April, 1230 when the city was finally captured by the Khwarazmian king Jalal al-Din after a long and brutal siege.

Tamta was taken prisoner by Jalal al-Din himself, who raped her and forced her into marriage – while she was still married to al-Ashraf. Although in August 1230 the Ayyubids led by al-Ashraf, managed to occupy Akhlat, Tamta was no longer there as she had been taken off to Azerbaijan by Jalal al-Din on his retreat. She was released as part of the peace negotiations that followed; her third marriage had lasted just four months.

Tamta returned to her ex-husband, but her city was again captured by the Seljuk Sultan but nothing is recorded of Tamta’s whereabouts or her position during these years. Jalal al-Din's brief and violent reign came to an equally brutal end when he was captured and killed by two Kurds in the mountains of Amed, while escaping the advancing Mongol army. Tamta and Mongols At some point during the Mongolian campaign in Anatolia Tamta was also captured and made a hostage. She was sent to Mongol prince Batu’s camp by the river Volga, she was then sent on to the court of the Great Khan, Ogodei, at Karakorum in Mongolia, an overland journey across the steppes of Asia of some 5,000 kilometers.

It was at this point that Tamta entered the most extraordinary period in her long and difficult life. This was the journey that Tamta made twice, as she travelled to and from the capital of the Great Khan. She was probably away from Akhlat between five and nine years. It involved travel far from her family and homeland, and into a world that had almost nothing in common with the cultures she had mostly moved between so far in her life. We have no information about what she did in Mongolia, or how she was treated.

While she was at the Great Khan’s court in Mongolia, Akhlat changed hands for the final time in the thirteenth century. And her brother Avag, who now dominated the Georgian court and played a leading role in politics in the first decades of the Mongol invasion, arranged a request by Rusudan , the new Queen of Georgia (r. 1223–45), for Tamta’s release from the Khan. In the mid-1240s the Mongols returned Tamta to Akhlat, and if she had first entered the city as a prize of war, a victim, she now returned to it as the city’s independent ruler and was to govern there for the last decade of her life. Never again would so many different cultures, factions, armies and religions all appear in one lifetime.

Her life linked together the Kurds, Georgians and the Armenians, Turks and Mongols. She traveled between Islam, Christianity and the Buddhist and shamanistic religions of the Mongol world, and between the cultures of the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Eurasia and Asia. We do not normally think that all these culturally diverse and apparently separate worlds could be experienced by one person, let alone by a woman, in the thirteenth century.

Tamta lived amongst all these different groups, and remained a Christian throughout her life. Her transformation from daughter to wife to widow, and from diplomatic hostage to ruler represents one of the great transformations of a woman in the thirteenth century, although all too often masked by terrible hardship.

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